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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.
This small yet historically significant collection contains a select number of original documents that highlight the political and professional activities of James Wilson. The documents specifically reveal Wilson's achievements as a prominent American lawyer, politician, and businessman which helped solidify his legacy in early American history. The most notable documents consist of commissions signed and sealed by George Washington and King Louis XVI of France; appointments as counsellor and solicitor of New Jersey; appointment as honorary member of the Pennsylvania Society of Cincinnati; Certificate of election as member of the American Philosophical Society; and official letters and Oath of Office signed by George Washington and Philadelphia Mayor Samuel Powell. Other documents in the collection that have intrinsic value comprise of one personal letter drafted by Wilson addressed to George Washington; Articles of Agreement with Patrick Henry; a bond composed by Wilson between Manuel Josephson; and an Agreement to enter on the Record of the Supreme Court.
- University of Pennsylvania: Biddle Law Library
- Finding Aid Author
- Hoang Tran
- Finding Aid Date
- 2012 September
- Access Restrictions
The archives reserves the right to restrict access to materials of sensitive nature. Please contact the department for further information.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.
In 1778, France forged an alliance with the United States of America in the midst of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) which was formally known as the Treaty of Alliance. Because of James Wilson's reputation as a good lawyer, France commissioned him to be the Advocate-General in America. This position made Wilson the representative of all matters arising out of the French alliance until the close of the American Revolutionary War. The French also relied on Wilson as an advisor regarding American maritime and commercial enterprises.
This document is James Wilson's commission for Advocat-General in America. The commission is written in French and signed by King Louis the XVI. The formal date of Wilson's commission is still debatable. Many sources cite 1779 as the year of his commission; however, the date written on this commission and translated into English states, "Today the 18th of February 1781..."
In 1783, Pennsylvania Delegates in the Continental Congress were allowed a per diem expense of 30 shillings. This document shows James Wilson submitted his expenses to the Office of the Comptroller General of the State of Pennsylvania for review. The front side of the document provides detailed expenses for reimbursement which is signed by James Wilson and dated April 5, 1784. The reverse side of the document indicates that the expenses were examined and accepted so Wilson may receive his reimbursement.
This fragile handwritten document was composed and signed by William Livingston, captain general and commander in chief of the state of New Jersey. The document formally appointed James Wilson as counsellor and solicitor of New Jersey. Dated April 25, 1793.
Official Certificate with seal of James Wilson's election as member of the American Philosophical Society. Dated January 20, 1786. Signed by the President and Vice Presidents of the American Philosophical Society.
Handwritten letter composed by a member of the Pennsylvania Society of Cincinnati appointing James Wilson as an honorary member of the Pennsylvania Society of Cincinnati. Dated July 7, 1789.
Wilson was nominated to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court by George Washington on September 24, 1789. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 26, 1789. The commission was signed by George Washington, under the Great Seal of the United States. Dated September 29, 1789.
Handwritten letter announcing the appointment of James Wilson as one of the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. Signed by George Washington. Dated September 30, 1789.
On September 29, 1789, George Washington commissioned James Wilson as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. A week later on October 5, 1789, Samuel Powell, Mayor of the City of Philadelphia, signed and sealed the handwritten Oath of Office certifying James Wilson's position as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
On September 29, 1789, George Washington commissioned James Wilson as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. This document is the handwritten letter that James Wilson drafted for George Washington accepting the Commission as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. It is dated October 18, 1789.
A printed bond formally completed by handwritten text from James Wilson to Manuel Josephson, a city merchant, in the amount of five thousand six hundred pounds current money of Pennsylvania. Signed and sealed by James Wilson. Dated July 11, 1792. The reverse side of the bond has handwritten statements indicating James Wilson made three repayments between 1793 and 1794.
This handwritten Articles of Agreement between Patrick Henry and James Wilson concerning land transactions consists of two pages. Document is signed and sealed by both Patrick Henry and James Wilson. Dated May 30, 1975.
Handwritten agreement to enter action between Thompson v. Wilson on the Record of the Supreme Court. Signed and sealed by James Wilson. Dated March 1796.