Thursday, August 11, 2011

James Wilson, the Forgotten Founder

I've long been a big fan of the musical (and, later, movie) 1776. It's a terrific (but of course, somewhat fictionalized) account of the political horse-trading that went on in the Continental Congress in the days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on (well, approximately on) July 4, 1776.

The climax of the story centers around the Pennsylvania delegation, which supposedly is split 2-1 against independence. The one in favor is Ben Franklin; those opposed are John Dickinson and the feckless James Wilson. Dickinson and Franklin carry on the debate, while Wilson sits helplessly in the background, voting "nay" when required by Dickinson but otherwise keeping his mouth shut. Only when the rest of Congress has voted for independence (a measure which must be approved by all the states, not just a majority), and Franklin asks that the Pennsylvania delegation be polled individually, does Wilson get singled out.

After Dickinson and Franklin vote "nay" and "yea" respectively, Wilson is asked for his vote, and pressure is applied by each side. Wilson changes his vote, explaining to Dickinson that while others were opposed, his nay vote would be just one of many. But now, if he voted nay, he would be remembered as the man who opposed independence. "I just didn't bargain for that," he complains, and votes yea. Wilson becomes the deciding vote in favor, but hardly heroically. He is manipulated at every turn, and his greatest desire is anonymity.

The truth, it turns out, is miles apart from the story. James Wilson was actually a Scot who arrived in America in 1766 at the age of twenty-four, and during the ten years between then and the events portrayed in 1776, he earned sufficient accolades through lecturing to be awarded an honorary degree by the University of Pennsylvania, studied law and attained the bar, opened a successful legal practice, joined the Pennsylvania State Militia and rose to the rank of Brigadier General, and wrote the influential pamphlet "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament". Hardly the career of one meek and anonymity-seeking.

His later career proceeded from highlight to highlight. After the Revolution, Wilson was such an eminence during the Constitutional Convention that he is considered second only to Madison among its framers. He was one of the first appointees to the Supreme Court. Through his real-estate dealings he became one of the wealthiest men in post-Revolutionary America.

Sadly, his final years were unhappy. After the Panic of 1796, his debts overtook him and he lost everything. He was imprisoned for debt in 1797, and died of a stroke in 1798. A bright flame, too quickly extinguished. Nothing like the character from the musical. Wilson's memory deserves rehabilitation.

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