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Interview With A Founding Father
James Wilson was an important but now obscure draftsman of the Constitution. Carry Wills is a journalist and historian fascinated by what went on in the minds of our founders. The two men meet in an imaginary dialogue across the centuries.
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
“Well, we do mean to remember your Grand Procession on its bicentenary.”
“On July 4, 1988?”
“No, we thought we would fold it together with the end of the drafting convention in September 1787. I suppose we have the date wrong.”
“That, among other things. What is it, precisely, you are celebrating in 1987?”
“It is a funeral ceremony then?”
“Of course not. We are celebrating all the things that have happened to the Constitution, up to now. Come and see.”
“Oh,” he said, with a stricken look. “I think not”—and his robe dimmed abruptly in the bulldozers’ dust as he fled.
He was born in Scotland in 1742 near St. Andrews, where he attended the university and divinity school. After four years of tutoring in Scotland and Amer- ica, he read law with John Dickinson, the leading pamphleteer of the early Revolutionary cause. Wilson wrote his own pamphlet, one of the earliest statements of American independence from Parliament, which Thomas Jefferson greatly admired.
A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Wilson was cast as a conservative in his oppo sition to Pennsylvania’s state constitution of 1776 and his defense of Robert Morris’s bank. But he advanced the most radically “popular” theories at the convention that drafted the United States Constitution in 1787, where he was James Madison’s principal ally in promoting the Virginia Plan. Wilson’s speeches for the draft were the. ones most cited in the ratifying period, during which he guided Pennsylvania’s early endorsement of the Constitution by a two-thirds majority.
He also led the convention that rewrote the state constitution of 1776. In 1789 President Washington appointed him to the new Supreme Court, and in 1790 he began the first public law lectures devoted to expounding the Constitution. His decision against “states’ rights” in the Chisholm v. Georgia case (1793) was countered by rapid passage of the Eleventh Amendment, which John Marshall did not find ways to circumvent until 1821.
Born desperately poor, Wilson had admired Scottish “lairds” of the Enlightenment like Lord Kames of Edinburgh. In America he speculated heavily in land schemes, embarrassing the Adams administration when he was jailed for debt while trying to ride circuit as a Justice of the Supreme Court. He died, to many people’s relief, in a tavern at Edenton, North Carolina, in 1798.