Above: James Wilson’s library record from student days, showing withdrawals of books on Roman history.
This essay first appeared in the April 20, 2023 Epoch Times.
James Madison was the individual with the most influence on the framing (writing) of the Constitution. Some authors rate James Wilson second.
I don’t agree with the latter assessment. Wilson’s impact at the Constitutional Convention, while significant, is overrated. But his contribution during the ratification debates (1787–1790) was exceptional.
James Wilson was born on Sept. 14, 1742 in the county of Fife, in Scotland. He was the fourth of seven children. His parents were farmers of modest means, but “Jimmy’s” exceptional talent encouraged them to strain their finances to provide him with the opportunities he deserved.
Wilson won a scholarship to the nearby College of St. Andrews—now the University of St. Andrews. He withdrew without a degree after his father died and the family could no longer support him. Some have claimed that Wilson also attended college in Edinburgh and/or Glasgow, but those claims are unverified.
During four months in 2005 I lived in England, doing research at the University of Oxford. I encountered a librarian from the University of St. Andrews, who told me that her library had Wilson’s surviving academic records. She suggested I visit Scotland to examine them. I couldn’t accept the invitation until nearly four years later, when my daughter Deborah was studying at St. Andrews.
Among those records were Wilson’s library withdrawals. I was delighted to see that he shared my passion for Roman history.
At some point, his mother decided that Scottish horizons were too constricted for Jimmy’s talents and ambition. Reluctantly, the family financed his emigration to America.
Wilson soon landed a job as a Latin instructor at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). His work must have been excellent, for the college awarded him an honorary master’s degree.
He next decided to study law. In those days—and, indeed, until the 20th century, when academia acquired its baleful monopoly over legal education—most aspiring lawyers prepared for the licensing exam by “clerking” in the offices of senior attorneys. Wilson clerked in the office of the best of the best: John Dickinson. Under Dickinson’s tutelage, Wilson developed a wide and deep understanding of the law.
During 1767 and 1768, Dickinson published his famous “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” which laid out the colonies’ case against Great Britain. Wilson copied his mentor by writing a pamphlet of his own: “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.” When finally published in 1774, it was very well received.
After winning his law license, Wilson practiced law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for about eight years, before returning to Philadelphia. While in Carlisle, he married his first wife, Rachel Bird (1771). They had six children. Rachel died in 1786.
During the 1770s, Wilson began the course of overly ambitious land and business speculation that ultimately led to financial humiliation. Many people thought he was wealthy; in reality, he was just highly leveraged.
He intermittently served in the Second Continental and Confederation Congresses. In 1781, the Confederation Congress chartered a national bank, although the Articles of Confederation granted no power to Congress to do so. This bank loaned Wilson a great deal of money.
Predictably, perhaps, Wilson defended Congress’s creation of the bank: “The United States,” he argued, “have [sic] … general powers … not derived from any particular states, nor from all the particular states, taken separately; but resulting from the union of the whole.”
Wilson’s claim of an implicit reservoir of power in the central government sometimes is called “the doctrine of inherent sovereign authority.” As we shall see, this idea continued to be influential after the Articles of Confederation passed into history and after Wilson himself had renounced it.
The Constitutional Convention
Wilson’s relationship with the Pennsylvania legislature waxed hot and cold, but when the legislature chose its commissioners (delegates) to the Constitutional Convention, it apparently was during a warm period. Wilson was elected. Like Madison, Wilson was a moderate nationalist. (See the first essay in this series for an explanation of that term.)
At the convention, Wilson supported: (1) direct election of senators, (2) divorcing presidential elections from the states, (3) creating a “council of revision” with an absolute veto over congressional bills, (4) granting Congress an absolute veto over state laws, (5) relegating the states to a “subordinate” position, and (6) at one point, at least, a lifetime term for the president.
His colleagues rejected every one of these ideas.
At the convention, Wilson opposed: (1) a ban on ex post facto laws, (2) a grant to Congress permitting it to “define and punish Offenses against the Law of Nations,” and (3) specific enumeration of the federal government’s powers.
His colleagues overruled him on all these as well.
Wilson was highly committed to allocating senators by population districts rather than by states. He had a great deal of trouble accepting his defeat on that issue, and even obliquely threatened to break up the Union.
My impression is that Wilson’s colleagues admired his learning, but they must have found his obsessions tiring. Whether or not that was true, the convention record rebuts the claim that he was the second-most-influential delegate after Madison.
Still, he won some significant successes, including popular election of the House of Representatives, and an executive branch headed by a single person.
Like Edmund Randolph, Wilson was one of the five members of the “Committee of Detail”—the elite group charged with preparing the Constitution’s first draft. He seems to have been given the job of writing the final version of the committee’s report.
The Ratification Battle
Wilson’s greater accomplishments came during the campaign for the Constitution’s ratification. Those accomplishments were local and national. In Pennsylvania, he served as the leader of the pro-Constitution forces at the state ratifying convention. In this respect, his role was similar to that of Randolph in Virginia. However, Randolph’s convention victory was narrow, but Wilson’s was decisive.
His national impact was due largely to his Oct. 6, 1787 “Speech in the State-House Yard,” which responded to criticisms of the Constitution. The speech was reprinted in 34 newspapers in 12 states, and it served as a playbook for the Constitution’s defenders, until largely superseded by the essays in “The Federalist.”
Wilson knew that to win the ratification debate, he had to assure the public that the Constitution would not create an all-powerful national aristocracy. This meant he had to swim upstream against his own reputation as an advocate of a potent central government with “inherent sovereign authority.”
Accordingly, Wilson emphasized that the new federal establishment would be limited to the powers enumerated in the Constitution—so limited, that the new government could not, for example, threaten freedom of the press. Thus, Wilson implicitly renounced his theory of inherent sovereign authority. He also emphasized some features he had opposed during the federal convention. For example, during the federal convention he had advocated a directly elected Senate. But in supporting ratification, he praised the Constitution’s provision for election of senators by state legislatures (changed by the 17th Amendment).
In presenting the Constitution this way, Wilson was not being dishonest. What the public needed to know was not what Wilson had wanted, but the actual meaning of the finished Constitution they were being asked to ratify.
Despite his reassurances, many people remained suspicious of the brilliant Scot, whom they deprecatingly called “James de Caledonia.” (“Caledonia” is one of two Latin names for Scotland.) The skeptics wanted it to be absolutely clear that the federal government would have no inherent sovereign authority. The clarification they desired was added by the 10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
In 1789, President George Washington appointed Wilson to be a justice on the Supreme Court. But his work on the court was less significant than a series of legal lectures he delivered during 1790–1791 at the College of Philadelphia. These lectures helped lay the groundwork for further development of the American branch of the Anglo-American legal system.
In 1793, Wilson married his second wife, Hannah Gray, by whom he had one child. However, his domestic bliss was marred by a financial malady that became ever-more serious: Even while a Supreme Court justice, he was imprisoned twice for debt.
Wilson died of a stroke in Edenton, North Carolina, on Aug. 21, 1798, while hiding from his creditors.
Despite the clear wording of the 10th Amendment, apologists for federal power still use Wilson’s “inherent sovereign authority” theory. In 1936, the New Deal Supreme Court relied on it to uphold expansive presidential powers over foreign affairs. In 2004, Justice Stephen Breyer mentioned it as a possible source of congressional power over Indian tribes. Leftist law professors frequently employ it to justify federal intrusion into areas the Constitution reserves to the states.
Despite Wilson’s move away from that theory, the seed he planted became a weed that sprouts up again and again.
“James de Caledonia” seems to have had an academic personality. He performed exceptionally in the world of ideas, but less well in other fields of endeavor. His management of money was disastrous.
He did well at the Constitutional Convention, but might have done better still if he had Madison’s flexibility or Randolph’s or Dickinson’s sense of political feasibility. Wilson won outstanding success in the ratification debates, but only because he (wisely) abandoned ideas he previously had promoted.
Read prior installments in this series here: first, second, third, fourth, fifth.