Significance: One of the first six justices on the first Supreme Court, Wilson ended his career in disgrace.
Born into a poor farming family in Scotland, Wilson received a university education at his family's expense because his parents hoped he would enter the ministry. After his father's death in 1763, Wilson decided that his options were limited in Scotland. Two years later, he emigrated to Philadelphia. There he studied law under John Dickinson, a leading figure in Pennsylvania politics. Wilson opened his own law offices in 1766. In 1775 Wilson was elected to the Second Continental Congress. An advocate of American independence, Wilson signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He was a critic of the Articles of Confederation, and he took part in the 1787 Constitutional Convention. A proponent of a strong federal government, Wilson called for a powerful executive branch. However, he also supported democratic measures such as the direct election of senators. After the convention completed its work, Wilson played a key role in Pennsylvania's ratification of the Constitution.
Appointment to the Court
Wilson wanted to be chief justice of the United States, and asked President George Washington to offer him the position. When Washington chose John Jay instead, Wilson accepted an appointment as an associate justice. His failure to become chief justice was mitigated by appointment to the faculty of the law school at the College of Philadelphia. He offered a successful series of lectures on his theory of law in 1790 and 1791; his audience for the first lecture included President Washington and Vice President John Adams. According to Wilson, God was the source of the law, which could be known when free individuals gave their consent to be governed. Thus, Wilson's conception of the law was in keeping with his advocacy of democratic institutions. Although Wilson had a keen mind, he did not prove to be an influential or outstanding justice. His few written opinions were brief and reveal little about his political philosophy, which was surprising given his reputation for writing lengthy grand jury charges in his role as a circuit judge in Pennsylvania. It was in that capacity that Wilson refused to rule in a pension case involving William Hayburn, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. In a letter to Washington, Wilson and his fellow circuit judges argued that despite a congressional mandate, the court had no jurisdiction in the case. Legal historians point to Hayburn's Case (1792) as the first exercise of judicial review. The only exception to Wilson's unexceptional performance on the Court was his 1793 ruling in Chisholm v. Georgia, which again evidenced his nationalism. In his decision, Wilson maintained that citizens of a state had the right to sue other states in federal court. Wilson rejected the notion that the states were sovereign and immune from such lawsuits, arguing that this notion of sovereignty would unconstitutionally limit the jurisdiction of the Court. Wilson consistently supported the federal government in his actions both outside and inside the courtroom. In 1794 farmers in western Pennsylvania rebelled against federal excise taxes in what came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion. After Wilson informed President Washington that a state of lawlessness existed, Washington called out the militia to suppress the rebellion. In the 1796 case of Ware v. Hylton, Wilson reaffirmed his belief in a strong central government when he ruled that treaties were superior to state laws.
Scandal and Decline
Financial problems intruded on Wilson's performance as a justice. He speculated in real estate, at one time so successfully that he was one of the wealthiest men in the United States. By the 1790's, however, Wilson was heavily in debt, which may have been why Washington refused to appoint him chief justice when that position became vacant in 1795 and again in 1796. Many observers hoped that Wilson would resign from the court rather than face impeachment, which became increasingly possible as his financial status worsened. Wilson, however, had no intention of resigning, and remained convinced that he could prevent any efforts to impeach him. Wilson was unable to visit several states because he feared he would he placed in debtors’ prison. His world collapsed in 1797 when he was forced to leave Pennsylvania in order to avoid his creditors. He was briefly incarcerated in a New Jersey debtors’ prison. Upon his release he moved to North Carolina, where he was again jailed for his debts. His son secured his release, but Wilson's health had failed. He contracted malaria and then suffered a stroke, finally dying in a North Carolina hotel room. Because his family could not afford to transport his remains to Pennsylvania, Wilson was buried in North Carolina. His unimpressive performance as an associate justice and the scandalous financial difficulties of his final years clouded his reputation, making Wilson a largely forgotten figure for most of the nineteenth century. As Wilson received scholarly attention, however, his reputation rose. Constitutional scholars noted that many of his ideas regarding popular sovereignty and the role of the court later became central to the operation of the American government. In 1906 Wilson's remains were exhumed, and he was given a state burial in Philadelphia that several justices attended. Despite such recognition, the general public remains largely unaware of Wilson's contributions to American history.
- Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
- Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
- Harrington, Matthew P. Jay and Ellsworth, The First Courts: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2007.
- Seed, Geoffrey. James Wilson. Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1978.
- Smith, Charles Page. James Wilson, Founding Father, 1742-1798. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973.