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Art and Architecture: James Wilson

December 27, 2022

In addition to founding the Law School, James 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.

The University of Pennsylvania’s first law professor, James Wilson is regarded as the founder of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

Born in Scotland, Wilson came to the United States as a young man in 1765. He began practicing law after a year of apprenticeship and soon became a leader in Pennsylvania’s revolutionary activities. He promulgated the political philosophy that “all power is derived from the people.”

Wilson was an active member of the Continental Congress and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. A proponent of a strong national government, the concept of implied powers, and dual sovereignty of the states and the central government, Wilson also signed and played a crucial role in the framing of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1790, Wilson began giving law lectures in what was then called the Law Department. He had come to see teaching as the best way to establish a strong foundation for the nation’s young legal system. That same year, Wilson was appointed as one of the first justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. This posthumous portrait was painted by Albert Rosenthal, who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and painted many Supreme Court justices and early American leaders.

A 2001 bust of Wilson by sculptor John Lanzalotti is displayed in the Biddle Law Library alongside the desk where Wilson is thought to have written his inaugural law lectures, the first of which was delivered on December 15, 1790, before an audience that included President George Washington and both houses of Congress. The remaining lectures were delivered to the 15 young men the Law School counts as its first students.

In his first lecture, Wilson identified “the love of liberty” and “the love of law” as the principal American virtues.

“Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression,” he said. “Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness.”

Wilson also spoke of legal education as a scientific enterprise, opining that, “in free countries — in free countries especially, that boast the blessing of a common law, springing warm and spontaneous from the manners of the people — Law should be studied and taught as a historical science.”

Reflecting the prevailing attitudes of the era, Wilson also devoted a significant portion of his first lecture to explaining why the study of law was an inappropriate pursuit for women, who ought not concern themselves with public affairs but rather with the cultivation of beauty and domestic society. “Let me assure you,” he addressed the ladies in the audience, “that, in the estimation of our sex, the loss of the lovely and accomplished woman is irreparable, even when she is lost in the queen.”

Though widely revered for his intellect, Wilson was not a talented businessman. Throughout his life, he engaged in ill-advised land speculation and manufacturing enterprises that eventually ruined him financially. When he died in a North Carolina debtor’s prison in 1798, he still held his positions as Supreme Court Justice and Professor of Law, but his reputation had sunk so low that no one bothered to have his remains returned to Philadelphia for a burial befitting a man of his accomplishments.

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