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Justice James Wilson of Cumberland
Speech to Cumberland Historical Society, January 20, 1994

by Lewis E. Lehrman

"The James Wilson chair on exhibit at the Cumberland County Historical Society is a large, classical Chippendale chair, perhaps too big for all of us, Wilson's cultural descendants, to sit in. For not only was James Wilson a big man physically, he was a big man politically. Indeed, during his time, it may surely be said that he was an oversized American in every significant respect. He was a man of great vision. His were always big thoughts, big ideas, big dreams, for himself and for his countrymen. As Marc Antony said of Julius Caesar, so it may be said of James Wilson that he, too, was an ambitious man for his family, his native state of Pennsylvania, and for his adopted homeland.

Many know, of course, that James Wilson helped to frame the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. But among most Americans, he is less well-known than the heroine of Carlisle at the Battle of Monmouth, Molly Pitcher. There is no question James Wilson has earned his place in American history, though not yet in popular folklore. It is no exaggeration to say that James Wilson was one of the more fascinating of the remarkable fathers of our country. He embodied so much of the extraordinary and the ordinary of colonial life, the dramatic differences and diversity in which these United States were created, the Herculean achievements which still set up apart as the greatest nation of world history.

James Wilson, himself, was a study in ironies: He was a successful Carlisle attorney for a rural community who became a cosmopolitan advocate for the Philadelphia elite. He was a university failure, turned constitutional architect, who had the self-confidence to call his handiwork at the constitutional convention "the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world."

Born poor, become rich, James Wilson died poor, but he spent much of his life pursuing wealth and status. Intellectually a dedicated democrat, he was regarded by many of his fellow Pennsylvanians as an arrogant aristocrat. A Cumberland County pioneer, he went off to Philadelphia and the life of the big city grandee, but he never lost his fascination with the frontier. The son of Scots Presbyterians, himself a proud Scotsman, he was well prepared for the plain Scots-Irish settlers in Cumberland County when he came to Carlisle to practice law in 1771.

While he was born of modest Fifeshire farming stock, his aloof carriage, and his patrician bearing earned him the disdain of ordinary Pennsylvanians who thought him a snob. Apologizing for him, one of his good friends declared there was nothing haughty about James Wilson, for his "lordly carriage" stemmed merely from the barrister's attempt to keep his spectacles from tumbling from his nose.

In a major move into public life Wilson took up pen and politics in 1774, just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War with England. He began his political career as a member of the Cumberland County Committee of Correspondence. He became a great advocate, and an eloquent correspondent, for his country.

His preoccupation with worldly enterprise and material possessions did displease his mother, though, who in the faithful tradition of John Knox and the Kirk of Scotland, had wanted him to become a minister. Wilson's writings show that he did remain a religious man, though some Presbyterians still wonder why he switched from the Presbyterian Church of his ancestry to the Anglican Church of his friends. It was an inconvenience not to have thought to make this change while at home in Cumberland County. In the square at Carlisle he might merely have walked across the street. Indeed, Wilson was a faithful churchgoer. While in Boston in 1793, as a Justice of the Supreme Court, he went looking on Sunday for a good sermon. Instead, he found a good wife which gave rise to a bad scandal. For his new wife, Hannah Gray, was thirty years his junior. She was a younger even than some of Wilson's children by Rachel Bird, well-known in Carlisle as his first wife.

His religious upbringing surely influenced his political principles. A sincere morality rang through the rhetoric of James Wilson's speeches. During the debates over ratification of the Constitution he was an early proponent of the Bill of Rights, and early prophet of the abolition of slavery in America, but the irony is he actually started married life in Carlisle as a slave owner. There, Wilson began the practice of law as an itinerant criminal and property lawyer - riding the circuit through Pennsylvania frontier towns, such as Carlisle, enforcing contracts to repay debts. He ended his professional life imprisoned for indebtedness. Surely, this was an ignominious end for the man whose ambition it was to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, a job which he personally solicited from President-elect George Washington. In fact, it was Wilson's financial dealings which probably dissuaded Washington from appointing him the Chief Justice, though his philosophical views were certainly similar to those of our first President.

Today, along with President Washington and the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, one would call James Wilson an economic conservative, a prominent advocate of sound government fiscal policy, while at the very same time we must acknowledge that Wilson was an inveterate practitioner of highly leveraged deal-making and personal deficit finance.

Wilson was also something of an economist, adept at the theory of money and credit. He was one of the early theorists and practitioners of American banking, and a founder of the Bank of North America, but he was also one of the largest speculators in property, even abusing the credit of the very banks he helped to initiate. The immense scale of his far-reaching financial enterprise, his grandiose vision, moves one to say that to the end of his life, Wilson can best be described as an economic frontiersman - a brilliant adventurer living on the edge of an emerging country he did much to create.

Those quick to judgment may find it fitting that James Wilson died a debtor, having just been bailed out of jail in North Carolina at the age of 56, still a sitting Supreme Court Justice. His debts were not parochial. Wilson's real estate deals extended throughout Pennsylvania, and by the end of his life deep into the South as well.

Perhaps one might fairly say that James Wilson never heard about a piece of land that he was not tempted to buy, and equally tempted to finance on credit. However, one can not be too critical of Wilson when one reflects that there continues to this day a tradition, among some Cumberland County farmers, tempting them always to buy more, and more, and more land with the great hope of making it productive and passing it on to their children and to their children's children.

James Wilson had a passion for real property, but his economic interests were not limited to real estate. He owned textile factories and ironworks. Together with his land speculations, they were designed not only to make money, but also to help populate America's frontier. Perhaps today the politically correct might call him a rural developer, but this would certainly be insufficient, for we would easily miss the special genius of the man and his times. Cumberland County during the American Revolution, was a fascinating place. Carlisle was a hotbed of agitation for Independence from England. Strangely, Wilson himself was lukewarm in advocating the dissolution of bonds with the Mother Country. Later, while much of Carlisle, a center of anti-Federalist activity, opposed the Constitution, Wilson became one of its foremost architects.

In this constitutional project, Wilson proved himself a great philosopher of the law. Perhaps more than any other man of his generation, he gave shape to the idea of a federal judiciary with appellate jurisdiction over the state courts. A legislator and judge, himself, he was, along with Alexander Hamilton, a vigorous and successful proponent at the Constitutional Convention of a strong Presidency.

Speaking at the Pennsylvania Convention, which ratified the Constitution, Wilson delivered one of the many erudite expositions of his political thought. In a characteristic sentence, Wilson declaimed:

...when we take an extensive and accurate view of the streams of power that appear through this great and comprehensive plan, when we contemplate the variety of their directions, the force and dignity of their currents, when we behold them intersecting, embracing and surrounding the vast possessions and interests of the continent, and when we see them distributing on all hands beauty, energy and riches, still, however, numerous and wide their courses, however diversified and remote the blessings they diffuse, we shall be able to trace them all to one great and noble source: THE PEOPLE.

This was Wilson's complicated way of saying "God bless America."

Because James Wilson was the only Pennsylvania member of both the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and of the state Ratifying Convention, (indeed, he was one of only six Founding Fathers of the country to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), one might think him to have held the place of honor throughout the Keystone State. It did not work out that way. The representatives of Carlisle at the ratifying convention rebuffed Wilson and the Constitution by boycotting the ceremony where the historic document was signed. This irony was always a mystery until a Mechanicsburg friend tired to explain the 'genetic' combativeness of colonial Carlisle. She told me that the Scots Irish, early and prolific settlers of Cumberland County, were so happy fighting the Indians that those Scotsmen who did not keep on going, fighting their way into the Shenandoah Valley, set about fighting with themselves in Carlisle. This friend also confided that she was of old Swiss-German stock, proud of her Mechanicsburg birthright; and that her kinfolk, unlike the Scots Irish, would rather farm than fight Indians.

James Wilson, himself, never ceased to emphasize the importance of public order; but the truth is, his controversial character and opinions managed to provoke two riots, one in Philadelphia when he was home, and one in Carlisle a decade after he left. In Philadelphia he infuriated the radicals with his Tory alliances and, under assault, barricaded himself in his home on Chestnut Street and prevailed over his attackers by force fo arms. After Pennsylvania ratified the Constitution, anti-federalists took to the Carlisle square and burned in effigy Cumberland County's most distinguished Federalist lawyer.

One sees in James Wilson, writ larger than life, the conflicts which inflamed the revolutionary generation. For example, Wilson moved to Carlisle because he saw in the frontier an opportunity to advance his legal career. Then he moved from Carlisle to Philadelphia to enlarge the stage of his ambition. There he was comfortable, it seems, as a proud signer of the Declaration of Independence while, at the same time, he was a prominent attorney for Philadelphia Tories accused of high treason.

It has been well-written that those who will understand Wilson best are ambitious immigrants, for Wilson was, if anything, a powerfully motivated man, energized by the realization that his goals could never be fulfilled in the Scotland of his birth. In his thirties, he concluded that his purposes could never be quite realized in Cumberland County either. Trapped in Scotland between his personal ambition and its rigid class structure, he set out, like generations of immigrants to come, for the New World, where he later found himself caught between the American frontier society he represented in the Continental Congress and the cosmopolitan culture of Philadelphia to which he aspired.

But never let it be said that James Wilson was not a practical man. He was an early practitioner of pork barrel politics, using his influence in the Continental Congress to get the Carlisle Depot located here in 1776. Cumberland Depot became the Cumberland Barracks which, in turn, became the Army War College, the nation's second oldest military institution.

This is not all. Wilson was a great educator, a tutor in Scotland and at the College of Philadelphia upon his arrival, a legal mentor to the nephew of George Washington by appointment of the President himself, a legal craftsman at the Constitutional Convention, and the first law Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. A college dropout, Wilson was named one of the first trustees of Dickinson College in 1784, thus having linked himself in Cumberland County history not only with the Army War College, but also with the origin of Dickinson College.

In today's world James Wilson, academic-lawyer-businessman-politician-philosopher, would be a scandal-in-waiting for the TV correspondents of "60 Minutes," "Prime Time" and "A Current Affair." Congress, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department and the Treasury Department would all undoubtedly launch separate investigations into his complicated financial affairs. Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue would devote talk shows to older Supreme Court justices who court and marry women a generation younger. (Perhaps, they might say, in extenuation, that at least he married them, old-fashioned as that might be.) The Wall Street Journal would print a front page article unraveling Wilson's complicated balance sheet, and the New York Times would report on Wilson's network of well-connected friends, and his attempts to influence Pennsylvania legislation regarding his own land speculation. People magazine would round out the coverage with a report on the final days of Wilson's life when, as he himself mournfully recounted, he was 'hunted [by creditors]...like a wild beast."

But Charles Page Smith, James Wilson's biographer, suggests that one should mitigate, with mercy and praise, judgments of Wilson:

If Wilson was eventually the victim of his ambition and of his greed, he was also the victim of his dreams. We are the legatees of his dream of a united democratic republic, secure under the law in the possession of human rights and dignity....If Wilson's land dream was less noble, it was no less American and no less a part of the future. In Wilson, the spirit that could later be identified as American capitalism surged so strongly that it finally tore him asunder and utterly destroyed him.

It is mete, it is fitting to recognize the legacy of James Wilson, a priceless patrimony. But his legacy is in unique intellectual property, not the physical property he craved. Indeed, Wilson's house at the corner of Pitt and High streets no longer stands. But his blueprint and his hopes for American democracy, and his faith in its future still lives. Thus do we of Cumberland County, assembled here rightly remember our debts to this brilliant Scotch immigrant.

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