Justice James Wilson

Justice James Wilson joined the U.S. Supreme Court on October 5, 1789 as one of its inaugural six Justices. Wilson was born on September 14, 1742 in Scotland, where he attended several universities before emigrating to America in 1765. He studied law in Pennsylvania and soon was admitted to the bar and entered private practice. Early in the American Revolution, Wilson participated in the Continental Congress. After some hesitation, he voted for independence and signed the Declaration of Independence. Later in the Revolutionary War, he served as advocate general for France in America.

Wilson played a prominent role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, during which he served on the Committee of Detail. This was a group of five delegates tasked with preparing a first draft of the U.S. Constitution based on what the Convention had discussed until that point. The draft resembles the Constitution as we know it in some key areas but not in others. For example, it set up a bicameral legislature with a House of Representatives based on population and a Senate with two representatives from each state. On the other hand, it provided that the President would serve a seven-year term and could not be reelected. After signing the Constitution, Wilson helped with the ratification process in Pennsylvania.

On September 24, 1789, President George Washington nominated Wilson to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on September 26, and he took the judicial oath in the following month. Wilson would serve on the Court for less than a decade. He wrote an opinion in the first significant case heard by the Court, Chisholm v. Georgia, which found that the Court could hear a lawsuit against a state by a citizen of another state. (The Eleventh Amendment soon superseded this decision.) Toward the end of his tenure, Wilson fell deeply into debt and even spent time in debtors’ prison.

Wilson died on August 21, 1798 in Edenton, North Carolina, but he is now buried in Philadelphia. He was the first Justice to die while on the Supreme Court. Justice Bushrod Washington replaced him there.