Wilson, James, 1742-1798

Alternative names
Birth 1742-09-14
Death 1798-08-21

Biographical notes:

Signer of the Declaration of Independence from Pennsylvania, jurist.

From the description of LS, 1780 April 19 : Philadelphia, to Joseph Reed, President of Pennsylvania. (Copley Press, J S Copley Library). WorldCat record id: 14176957

Declaration of Independence signer from Pennsylvania.

From the description of Writ, 1776 January. (University of Virginia). WorldCat record id: 55230586

James Wilson was a Pennsylvania jurist and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

From the description of Miscellaneous manuscripts, 1784-1890. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 155887077


From the description of James Wilson papers, 1784-1795. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 70981388

James Wilson was a lawyer and associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

From the description of Account book and diary, 1773-1786. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122488831

From the guide to the James Wilson account book and diary, 1773-1786, 1773-1786, (American Philosophical Society)

Wilson, Scottish born American lawyer. He was a signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, served in the U.S. Continental Congress, and was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1789-1798).

From the description of [Deed] 1794 Aug. 29 / James Wilson. (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 491391188

Continental Congressman from Pennsylvania, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

From the description of ALS : Philadelphia, to Jasper Yeates, 1783 June 9. (Rosenbach Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 122591740

At this time, James Wilson was living in Carlisle, PA, and working as a lawyer. Edmond Physick was an attorney in Philadelphia. John Penn was the Lieutenant-Governor for Pennsylvania. John Montogomery was a colonel for the Pennsylvania militia.

From the description of Letters to Edmund Physick and John Montgomery, 1773 August 17-1775 September 14. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 155866519

James Wilson was born in Scotland in 1742. He was a colonial American lawyer and political theorist, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Immigrating to North America in 1796, Wilson taught Greek and rhetoric in the College of Philadelphia and then studied law under John Dickinson, statesman and delegate to the First Continental Congress. Wilson's fame spread with publication in 1774 of his treatise Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament. In this work he set out a scheme of empire in which the British colonies would have the equivalent of dominion status. In 1774 he became a member of the Committee of Correspondence in Cumberland County, Pa., and he served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. In 1779 he was appointed advocate general for France and represented that country in cases rising out of its alliance with the American colonies. He became a champion of the Bank of North America and an associate of merchant-banker Robert Morris in his struggle for currency reform after 1781. As a member of the federal Congress (1783; 1785-86), he pressed for an amendment to the Articles of Confederation to permit Congress to levy a general tax. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Wilson helped to draft the U.S. Constitution; he then led the fight for ratification in Pennsylvania. In 1790 he engineered the drafting of Pennsylvania's new constitution and delivered a series of lectures that are landmarks in the evolution of American jurisprudence. He was appointed an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1789-98), where his most notable decision was that on Chisholm v. Georgia. In the winter of 1796-97 financial ruin brought on by unwise land speculation shattered his health and ended his career. New Georgia Encyclopedia http://georgiaencyclopedia.org (Retrieved November 18, 2008)

The Yazoo land fraud was one of the most significant events in the post-Revolutionary history of Georgia. The bizarre climax to a decade of frenzied speculation in the state's public lands, the Yazoo sale of 1795 did much to shape Georgia politics and to strain relations with the federal government for a generation. Georgia was too weak after the Revolution to defend its vast western land claims, called the "Yazoo lands" for the river that flowed through the westernmost part. Consequently, the legislature listened eagerly to proposals from speculators willing to pay for the right to form settlements there. In the 1780s the state supported two unsuccessful speculative projects to establish counties in the western territory and in 1788 tried, again without success, to cede a portion of those lands to Congress. In 1789 the legislature sold about 25 million acres to three companies, only to torpedo the sale six months later by insisting that payment be made in gold and silver rather than in depreciated paper currency. Pressure to act continued to build on legislators until, by mid-November 1794, a majority reportedly favored sale of the western territory. On January 7, 1795, Georgia governor George Mathews signed the Yazoo Act, which transferred 35 million acres in present-day Alabama and Mississippi to four companies for $500,000. To bring off this speculative coup, the leader of the Yazooists, Georgia's Federalist U.S. senator James Gunn, had arranged the distribution of money and land to legislators, state officials, newspaper editors, and other influential Georgians. Cries of bribery and corruption accompanied the Yazoo Act as it made its way to final passage. Angry Georgians protested the sale in petitions and street demonstrations. Despite the swelling opposition, the Yazoo companies completed their purchases.

Learning of the circumstances surrounding passage of the Yazoo Act, Georgia's leading Jeffersonian Republican, U.S. senator James Jackson, resigned his seat and returned home, determined to overturn the sale. Making skillful use of county grand juries and newspapers, Jackson and his allies gained control of the legislature. After holding hearings that substantiated the corruption charges, Jackson dictated the terms of the 1796 Rescinding Act, which was signed by Governor Jared Irwin and nullified the Yazoo sale. He also arranged for the destruction of records connected with the sale; ensured that state officials tainted by Yazoo were denied reelection and replaced by his own anti-Yazoo, pro-Jefferson supporters; and in 1798 orchestrated a revision of the state constitution that included the substance of the Rescinding Act. To prevent those claiming lands under the Yazoo purchase from receiving a sympathetic hearing in a Congress dominated by Federalists, Jackson and his lieutenants blocked any cession of the western territory until the Republicans were in control. Then in 1802, commissioners from Georgia, including Jackson, transferred the land and the Yazoo claims to the federal government: the United States paid Georgia $1.25 million and agreed to extinguish as quickly as possible the remaining claims of Native Americans to areas within the state. Georgia politicians used the "Yazoo" label to bludgeon opponents for almost twenty years following the congressional settlement. A more tragic legacy of the Yazoo fraud grew out of the 1802 cession to Congress. As cotton culture spread across Georgia, the national government proved unable to extinguish quickly enough for land-hungry Georgians the claims of the Creeks and Cherokees to lands within the state. Anger over this matter fueled the development of the states' rights philosophy, for which Georgia's leaders became notorious in the 1820s and 1830s as they prodded the United States to complete the process of Indian removal. In a sense, Yazoo led to the "Trail of Tears" in 1838. New Georgia Encyclopedia http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org (Retrieved January 28, 2009)

From the description of James Wilson - Yazoo land documents, 1794. (University of Georgia). WorldCat record id: 300074540

Born on September 14, 1742 in Carskerdo, Fife, Scotland. Although James Wilson attended numerous universities while living Scotland, he never attained a degree. When Wilson was no more than 25 years old, he emigrated to America and eventually settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wilson was fortunate enough to have valuable letters of introductions that helped him begin tutoring and teaching at the Academy and College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). During this time, he petitioned for a degree and was soon awarded an honorary Master of Arts.

It was Wilson's pursuit of studying law that helped pave become a significant figure in American history. Wilson began studying law at the law office of John Dickinson. By 1766, Wilson attained the bar in Philadelphia and soon after opened his own practice in Reading. Wilson was fairly successful as a lawyer and he managed to amass a small fortune during this time.

On November 5, 1771, Wilson married Rachel Bird, daughter of William Bird and Bridget Hulings. The couple had six children together: Mary, William, Bird, James, Emily and Charles. Sadly, Rachel died in 1786. Wilson eventually remarried Hannah Gray in 1793, daughter of Ellis Gray and Sarah D'Olbear. The couple had a son named Henry, who died at age three.

It was Wilson's published pamphlet of 1774 "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament" that stirred revolution fervor. Wilson argued that British Parliament had no authority to pass laws for the American colonies because the colonies had no representation in Parliament. Wilson believed that power was vested in the people. In 1775, Wilson was elected to the Continental Congress where he positioned himself with members that opposed British rule.

Not only was Wilson a classical scholar, lawyer, member of Continental Congress, theorist of political economy, Associate Justice of the first U.S. Supreme Court, Trustee and first Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, he was also a Signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution which makes him one of the founding fathers of the United State of America.

Wilson's greatest achievement in public life was his part in the establishment of the United States Constitution. He regularly advocated the idea that sovereignty resided in the people, that the President and members of both houses of Congress should be popularly elected.

From the guide to the James Wilson Documents, 1779-1796, (University of Pennsylvania: Biddle Law Library: Manuscripts Collection)


Loading Relationships


Ark ID:


  • Social Life and Customs
  • Actions and defenses--History--18th century
  • Mutiny
  • Real property
  • Women's history
  • Philadelphia History
  • Law--History--18th century
  • Banks and banking
  • Land speculation
  • Yazoo Fraud, 1795


  • Jurists


  • Cumberland County (Pa.) (as recorded)
  • United States--Pennsylvania (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania (as recorded)
  • Georgia (as recorded)
  • Carlisle (Pa.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)