Considered the founder of Penn Law School, James Wilson’s illustrious career includes his pioneering work during the American Revolution to lay the groundwork of the young nation’s legal system. One of the founding fathers of the United States, Wilson was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a framer of the U.S. Constitution. Wilson, along with James Madison, was a leader in drafting and shaping the Constitution.
He was a member of the Continental Congress, the governing body of the the United States during the American Revolution.
Wilson’s intellect was legendary, with some of his beliefs ahead of his time. He believed that “the people” were the source of all sovereignty and he advocated direct popular election of the president rather than through the Electoral College.
Born in Scotland, Wilson came to the United States in 1765 when he was 23 years old.
He started out as a tutor, and then went on to become an English professor at the College of Philadelphia, the forerunner of the University of Pennsylvania. After studying law, he moved to Carlisle, Pa., to work as a lawyer, and became a leader in Pennsylvania’s revolutionary activities.
Wilson was the main author of the Commonwealth’s new constitution in 1789 and 1790, which included a governor with limited veto power, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary.
Wilson and his family eventually moved back to Philadelphia, where he raised money to support the Revolution.
In 1790, he held Penn’s and likely the country’s first law lectures in what was then the Penn Law Department. The same year, he was appointed by President George Washington as one of the six original justices to the first U.S. Supreme Court.
While Wilson worked to support the Revolution, he participated in endeavors to accumulate wealth for his family.
Wilson’s land speculation ventures—buying land and waiting for the prices to rise to sell it at a profit—were unsuccessful. His high debt landed him in prison.
When he died in a North Carolina prison in 1798, his reputation had plummeted so low that his body wasn’t returned to Pennsylvania until 1906 to be buried in Philadelphia’s historic Christ Church graveyard, the final resting place of many prominent leaders of the 18th century, including Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence.
For more information about this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives online.