Wilson, James, 1742–98, American jurist, signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. near St. Andrews, Scotland. He studied at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh and, after emigrating to Pennsylvania in 1766, taught Latin at the College of Philadelphia (now Univ. of Pennsylvania). He studied law there under John Dickinson, was later admitted to the bar in 1767, and became a successful lawyer within a few years. He was a member of the Pennsylvania convention (1774) and in the following year was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress. Although he strongly disputed Parliament's authority over the colonies, he opposed independence until July, 1776. Because he vigorously opposed the extremely democratic principles of the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, he lost (1777) his seat in Congress. He became allied with the conservative faction and argued for it in the Congress of the Confederation (1782–83, 1785–87). Wilson is especially known for his part in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he was a proponent of a strong executive. His influence in drawing up the Constitution was second only to that of James Madison. He was active in drafting the Pennsylvania constitution of 1790 and served as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1789–98). He was the first professor of law (1789) at the College of Philadelphia. Wilson wrote a number of pamphlets, addresses, treatises, and lectures on law.
See biography by C. P. Smith (1956, repr. 1973); the collection of his works, 2 vol., ed by R. G. McCloskey (1804, repr. 1967).
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