James Wilson papers
Held at: Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Contact Us]1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
James Wilson (1742-1798) was one of America’s “founding fathers” and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was born in Scotland and moved to Philadelphia in the mid 1760s. While in Scotland, he studied to become a Presbyterian minister, but he did not enter the seminary. Instead, he went to Edinburgh to study bookkeeping. Soon after establishing himself in Philadelphia, he accepted a job at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) as a Latin teacher; but he quickly gave this up when the opportunity arose to study law with John Dickinson.
Wilson attained the bar in 1768 and moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, where he set up his own legal practice. In 1771, he moved again, this time to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he married Berks County native Rachel Bird in 1771. The couple had six children: Mary (1772-1832), who went on to marry Philadelphia merchant Paschall Hollingsworth, William (1775-1840), Bird (1777-1859), Emily (1782-1809), and Charles (1785-1810).
Wilson entered politics in the 1770s. In 1774, he accepted the chair of Carlisle’s committee of correspondence. The next year, he was elected to the Continental Congress, where he sat on military and Indian affairs committees. He went on to sign the Declaration of Independence for Pennsylvania and eventually helped frame the United States Constitution. In 1789, he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President George Washington. A year later, he became the College of Philadelphia's first professor of law.
In his later years, Wilson turned his attention to land speculation, but a number of bad deals left his finances in ruin, and he even spent a few years in debtors' prison. In the 1790s, he moved to Burlington, New Jersey. He died while visiting a friend in North Carolina, where he was buried in 1798. His body was moved to Christ Church burial grounds in Philadelphia in 1906.
This collection of Wilson’s papers, housed in sixteen boxes, four volumes, and two flat files consists of original documents and a full set of photocopies of the original papers. Some of the original papers have been microfilmed. Because the original papers were once housed in volumes, each box is labeled with old volume numers and each item retains old volume and page numbers. These same numbers have been transferred to the photocopies. On occasion, some pages are notes as "missing," denoting what were once blank pages in the volumes.
The collection contains material on the early federal government and on Wilson's business and professional activities. There are drafts of the Constitution and a corrected copy of the same from 1787; notes of debates and resolutions in the Constitutional Convention; drafts of treaties, memoranda on regulation of immigration, and establishment of the national bank; and business correspondence. Other materials include letters and miscellaneous documents; deeds and wills; surveys and maps of lands in Pennsylvania; articles of agreement, bonds and accounts; and letters of Mary Wilson Hollingsworth from 1801-1812. Besides the letters of Mrs. Hollingsworth, the collection contains other scattered material that dates from well after Wilson's death in 1798. Among these are letters and legal papers dating from the 1820s to 1850s, many of which are to or from Wilson's son Bird, who lived in New York and was an Episcopal minister.
Although not extensive, Wilson’s correspondence is richly detailed and cover a variety of topics. For example, Silas Deane's letters to Wilson reveal his frustration at being accused of embezzlement by the Congress; while his letters from Paris -- partially in code -- report of the attitudes of the English and other European powers. Wilson's notes from the Constitutional Convention document some of the more interesting discussions of the meetings, including whether or not there should be a bill of rights. Mary Wilson Hollingsworth's letters to Abby and Sally Chauncey cover social and cultural aspects, such as travel, illness, and daily activities of an upper-class young woman. There are also some letters between Wilson's sons regarding the younger boy's stay at a boarding school in Reading.
Gift of Emily Hollingsworth over several years starting in 1876. Some material was also the gift of Israel W. Morris, 1908.
Original pages from Volume 2, pages 58-64, containing some of Wilson's legal notes and a possible Constitutional draft, have been removed from the collection. Please see an HSP librarian if you wish to look at these pages.
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Cary Majewicz.
- Finding Aid Date
- Processing made possible by a generous donation from the Young Friends of HSP.
- Access Restrictions
Researchers are asked to please use the service copies in Boxes 1-7 prior to consulting the original documents. The original deeds and legal papers in Boxes 8-9 are open for use without restriction.
Box 1: Copies - Volumes 2-3, Correspondence, banking papers, legal notes (1775-1797, 1822-1823, 1876-1877, undated); and Volume 4, Docket book (1743-1768) and commonplace book (1767)
Box 2: Copies - Volumes 5-6, Business correspondence (1773-1857, undated)
Box 3: Copies - Volume 7, Deeds and wills (1715-1796, 1847, undated)
Boxes 4-5: Copies - Volume 8, Surveys, locations, maps (1734-1797, undated)
Box 6: Copies - Volume 9, Articles of agreement, bonds and accounts (1710, 1773-1800, undated)
Box 7: Copies - Volume 10, Mary Wilson Hollingsworth (1800-1812, 1818, undated) and miscellaneous (1763-1800, undated)
Volumes 1-4: Master copy and secondary copy of the first and second drafts of the United States Constitution
Flat file 1: Photostats of first and second drafts of the United States ConstitutionPhysical Description
3.6 Linear feet ; 7 boxes, 4 volumes, 1 flat file
Box 8, folder 1: A plan for a tract of land . . . in the Province of New York, as granted January 1775 (undated)
Box 8, folder 2: Assignments of rent (1717, 1728)
Box 8, folder 3: Articles of agreement (21 August 1795)
Box 8, folder 4: Conveyance (1749)
Box 8, folders 5-8: Deeds (1712-1796)
Box 9, folder 1: Deed poll (17 September 1765)
Box 9, folder 2: Land patents – Isaac Wickoff – Northumberland County (31 May 1783)
Box 9, folder 3: Land patents – James Wilson – Northumberland County (8 September 1794)
Box 9, folder 4: Land patents – Henry and Jacob Huber – Northumberland County (3 March 1796)
Box 9, folder 5: Lease (3 September 1730)
Box 9, folder 6: Release and confirmations (1729, 1730, 1735)
Box 9, folder 7: Warrants and surveys (circa 1780-1790)
Box 10: Volume 2, Correspondence, banking papers, legal notes (1775-1797, 1822-1823, 1876-1877, undated)
Flat file 2: Volume 2, pages 106-111, Case of two banks and remarks concerning banking (undated)
Box 11: Volume 3, Correspondence, banking papers, legal notes (1770-1815)
Box 12: Volume 4, Docket book (1743-1768) and commonplace book (1767)
Box 13: Volumes 5-6, Business correspondence (1773-1857, undated)
Box 14: Volume 7, Deeds and wills (1715-1796, 1847, undated)
Box 15: Volume 8, Surveys, locations, maps (1734-1797, undated)
Box 16: Volumes 9, Articles of agreement, bonds and accounts (1710, 1773-1800, undated); Volume 10, Correspondence of Mary Wilson Hollingsworth (1800-1812, 1818, undated) and Miscellaneous (1763-1800, undated)Physical Description
3.6 Linear feet ; 9 boxes, 1 flat file