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The dark side of James Wilson
BY NATALIE WEXLER, L’83
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Despite his essentially democratic outlook, Wilson gained a reputation as a would-be aristocrat — probably because of his wealth, his haughty bearing, and his opposition to the radical Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. In 1779 an angry mob attacked his house on the corner of Walnut and Third Streets, where he was barricaded along with a number of other prominent businessmen; the incident became known as “Fort Wilson.” But in 1793, Wilson came in for some public attention of a quite different nature. While riding circuit in Boston, the 51-year-old Justice went to church one Sunday and spotted an attractive 19-year-old, Hannah Gray. By the time he’d left town ten days later he had proposed marriage, pleading with Hannah to give him an answer that would “authorize me to think and call you mine.” Hannah complied, apparently unfazed by the age difference — and by the fact that Wilson, a widower, had six children, at least one of whom was older than she was. The gossips in Boston, including a young John Quincy Adams, immediately concluded that Hannah had been swayed by Wilson’s wealth. The union, Adams opined in a catty letter to his brother, rendered Wilson “ridiculous” and Hannah “contemptible.” Under the circumstances, it was not an unreasonable conclusion.
 
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