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Remembering Founding Father James Wilson, Law School founder, on Constitution Day

September 17, 2021

In addition to founding the Law School, Wilson was a member of the Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence, framer of the U.S. Constitution, and one of the original U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Upon holding the University of Pennsylvania’s first law lectures – which may also have been the first in the United States – James Wilson became known as the founder of what is today the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

While his contributions to the Law School cannot be overstated, Wilson was also one of the country’s Founding Fathers as a member of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a framer of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, he helped construct the foundation of American jurisprudence as one of the original justices on the first Supreme Court and wrote Pennsylvania’s Constitution as well.

Wilson’s contributions to the birth of the U.S. have been largely overshadowed by those of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, but his views were especially revolutionary even for revolutionary times. Wilson’s core beliefs emphasized the power of citizens as the source of sovereignty; he supported the direct popular vote over the electoral college for presidential elections, helped frame judiciary and presidential powers, and facilitated the Three-Fifths Compromise.

Wilson’s passionate “Speech in the State House Yard” on October 6, 1787 argued forcefully for the ratification of the Constitution against anti-federalist claims and was printed throughout the country at the time.

“[A]lthough Wilson and Madison were natural allies, and although they frequently voted together, their similar voting patterns mask the fact that their underlying reasons were often quite different,” writes Professor of Law and Philosophy William Ewald in “James Wilson and the Drafting of the Constution,” He continues, “Wilson, indeed, possessed a constitutional theory comparable in sophistication to those of Madison, Jefferson, or Hamilton, and it deserves to be disentangled from the views of his better-known colleagues. The principal source for his theoretical ideas is the Lectures on Law he delivered at the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) in the early 1790s.”

Wilson was born in Scotland and arrived in the U.S. in 1765 at 23 years old. He worked his way up from Latin tutor to English professor at the College of Philadelphia, now known as the University of Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, he studied law under legendary Pennsylvania attorney and fellow Founding Father John Dickinson and then practiced law briefly in Reading, PA before moving to Carlisle, where he operated a farm and became a founding trustee of Dickinson College.

After some time, Wilson moved his family back to Philadelphia and unfortunately, his real estate acumen wasn’t as sharp as his constitutional theories, and he landed in debtors’ prison. He died in 1798, and his body was finally returned to Philadelphia in 1906 and buried in the city’s historic Christ Church graveyard alongside several other signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin.

“James Wilson is not nearly as well known as Madison or Jefferson or Hamilton,” writes Ewald, “and indeed, relative to the magnitude of his accomplishments, he has a good claim to be the most neglected of the major American founders.”

Read more of Wilson’s works in the Archives of Biddle Law Library.