James Wilson: The First Justice


James Wilson was the first justice sworn in to serve on the United States Supreme Court. He took the oath of office on October 5, 1789, two weeks before John Jay, the first Chief Justice, was sworn in. Wilson died, disgraced, hiding from creditors in North Carolina, on August 21, 1798. Although he was never impeached, he was absent from the Court for the last year of his life. He was simply afraid to step foot in Philadelphia lest he be imprisoned by debtors, as had happened twice in the closing years of his life.

It was a sad ending to a legal career marked by extraordinary brilliance. Born in Scotland in 1742, Madison came to the United States in 1765, and read law for just under a year with John Dickinson. His law practice quickly thrived; throughout his career he was a bookish sort of lawyer, dedicated, to be sure, to his client's interests, but also alive to the Eighteenth century's promise of a universal science of law. He was the first lecturer on law at the University of Pennsylvania, and his lectures ranged from natural law to the forms of pleading.

Wilson harbored ambition to serve as Chief Justice, and wrote to President George Washington seeking the post. But the president may well have been mindful of Wilson's financial difficulties; Wilson was deeply in debt as a land speculator and budding capitalist. Wilson also acquired many enemies in Pennsylvania's fractious debates about the state constitution. The father of seven children, Wilson's romantic life caused a stir in Boston in 1793 when he began to court Hannah Gray; Wilson was 51-years-old at the time, but Boston wags thought him fifty-five; his true age hardly mattered, though, Ms. Gray was at most 19 years old and younger than several of Wilson's children. The couple married in 1793.

As near as I can tell, there is only one biography of Wilson in print, Charles Paige Smith's, James Wilson: Founding Father 1742-1798 (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1956). Smith's work was apparently commissioned by the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Chapel Hill. It has gone out of print, but I was able to find a copy on line at a used book shop.

Smith's work is strangely uneven. He recounts well and reliably Wilson's role in the Continental Congress and debates over the new Constitution. His treatment of Wilson as a justice is lackluster. That may not be a fault of the biographer, however; the Court's docket did not immediately take shape. The first few years of the institution were unremarkable. Most intriguing about Smith's work is an impressionistic couple of chapters about Wilson's views of the nature of law and government; Wilson did not emerge as a philosopher of the first-rank; his business affairs intruded upon the hours he could steal for speculative enterprises. Even so, Wilson's speculations are brilliant and inspiring. I am now scouting for a copy of Wilson's Works edited by James Dewitt Andrews in 1896; this edition contains Wilson's notes for his early law lecutres. Aspiring scholars could well supply the gap in the literature on Wilson by a sustained look at the sources of his political theory.

An overall assessment of Wilson? In the infant republic the law had not yet fractured into separate spheres dividing practitioners from judges and both from scholars. Wilson apprenticed with Dickinson, one of his generations leading lawyers, and they earned his keep in private practice. His brilliance drew him into the transforming struggles of his time, where his learning made him as influential a founder as James Madison. He died young, at 56, struggling beneath a crippling mountain of debt that seems to have broken his spirit. And he was throughout his life on difficult terms with his mother, who had hoped and prayed that he would assume a clerical career. He was no saint, and refreshingly so.

Wilson was a public intellectual at a time in which there were no riches to be gained from opining. He risked his life to help form a new nation and was a visionary in terms of the importance of an independent judiciary. Yet he was a man that even his biographer had difficulty understanding. "Tracing over the events of Wilson's life." Smith notes, "we are impressed by the lucid quality of his mind. With this went a restless energy and insatiable ambition, an almost frightening vitality that turned with undiminished energy and enthusiasm to new tasks and new ventures. Yet, when all has been sad, the inner man remains, despite our pleadings, an enigma."

Is the enigmatic character of Wilson a weakness? We know enough to know of his brilliance. In our time, justices rarely sparkle as intellects, and when they do so, the glare they reflect is too often so narrow and focused as to distort, rather than illuminate, their objects. I wish knew less about the personal lives of the justices we now seek, and that, as a class, they were better read, and more passionate about ideas. Wilson was a giant in a time of giants; perhaps a young republic fostered such learning. Perhaps we need a little ferment in our time to shatter the depressing mold that seems to make all our justices look so much alike.

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