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Rediscovering Americans: James Wilson

Written by Samuel Postell, director of the Center for Liberty and Learning


When I was in college my mentor often said that he was “born American but in the wrong place.” Many of our nation’s greatest patriots are born elsewhere, but come to love this country. This was true of Dr. Schramm, Alexander Hamilton, and James Wilson.


Wilson was born in Scotland in 1742, but arrived in America in 1765 in the heat of the Stamp Act debates. When he arrived, he taught Greek and Rhetoric courses at the College of Philadelphia and took an apprenticeship with John Dickinson, one of the most prominent lawyers in the country at the time. In 1774, Wilson published a piece called Consideration of Nature and Extent of Legislative Authority of the British Parliament in which he argued that the British Parliament had no right to legislate on any matter within the colonies. Due to his pamphlet he was widely considered a leading thinker on republican principles, and Thomas Jefferson was influenced by his argument.


In 1775, Wilson was chosen to represent Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress, and he was a leading figure in persuading the congress to pass the Declaration of Independence.


Wilson was also chosen to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Although he was not known for his oratorical abilities, he spoke more frequently in the debates than every other delegate except Gouverneur Morris. He spoke every day of the convention from May 31st through September 17th when the Constitution was signed. Wilson was chosen as one of the five men who composed the committee of detail to refine the words of the Constitution after deliberation.


After the convention, Wilson was appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington in 1789. Wilson was also the main architect behind Pennsylvania’s 1790 Constitution.


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