City Readers Digital Historic Collections at the New York Society Library
James Wilson (1742-1798)
James Wilson (September 14, 1742 – August 21, 1798) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Wilson was elected twice to the Continental Congress, where he represented Pennsylvania, and was a major force in drafting the United States Constitution. A leading legal theorist, he was one of the six original justices appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Born near Leven, Fife, Scotland, Wilson immigrated to Philadelphia in 1766, becoming a teacher at the College of Philadelphia. After studying under John Dickinson, he set up a legal practice in Reading, Pennsylvania. He wrote a well received pamphlet arguing that Parliament's taxation of the Thirteen Colonies was illegitimate due to the colonies' lack of representation in Parliament. He was elected to the Continental Congress and served as president of the Illinois-Wabash Company, a land speculation company.
Wilson was a delegate to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, and served on the Committee of Detail, which produced the first draft of the United States Constitution. Along with Roger Sherman, he proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of representation in the United States House of Representatives. He also proposed the Electoral College. After the convention, he campaigned for the ratification of the document, and his "speech in the statehouse yard" was reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. He also played a major role in drafting the 1790 Pennsylvania Constitution.
In 1789, Wilson became one of the first Associate Justices of the Supreme Court. He also became a professor of law at the College of Philadelphia (which later became the University of Pennsylvania). Wilson suffered financial ruin from the Panic of 1796–97 and was briefly imprisoned in a debtors' prison on two occasions. He suffered a stroke and died in August 1798, becoming the first U.S. Supreme Court justice to die.