Wilson attended two Continental Congresses, signed of the Declaration of Independence, and helped draft the U.S. Constitution. A leading legal theorist, he was one of the first four Associate Justices appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington. In his capacity as the first professor of law at the College of Philadelphia (later to become the University of Pennsylvania), he taught the first course on the new Constitution to President Washington and his Cabinet in 1789 and 1790.
Wilson’s final years were marked by financial failures after investing in land just before the Panic of 1796–1797. He was briefly imprisoned in a debtors’ prison in Burlington, New Jersey and later went to North Carolina to escape other creditors. He was again briefly imprisoned but continued his duties on the Federal judicial circuit. In 1798, he suffered a bout of malaria and then died of a stroke at the age of 55.
In the latest episode of Ben Franklin’s World, Michael H. Taylor, Professor of United States History and Political Science at Northeast Community College and author of James Wilson: The Anxious Founder (Lexington Books, 2023), joins us to investigate the life of James Wilson, who stands as one of the United States’ overlooked founders.
James Wilson’s life began as an Atlantic World success story, with mounting intellectual, political, and legal triumphs, but ended as a Greek tragedy. Each achievement brought greater anxiety about his place in the revolutionary world.
Wilson’s life story is a testament to the success that tens of thousands of Scottish immigrants achieved after their trans-Atlantic voyage, but it also reminds us that not all had a happy ending. James Wilson’s life is an entry point into the events of the latter half of the 18th century and the impact of the Scottish Enlightenment on American society, discourse, and government.
On September 17, 1787, the members of the Constitutional Convention concluded their work by signing the final draft of their new proposed government. The document they signed was the United States Constitution, which is why the United States marks Constitution Day each year on September 17.
In honor of Constitution Day, Ben Franklin’s World explores the life of a Founder who played a large role in the creation and shaping of the United States Constitution: James Wilson.
You can listen to the podcast here.
Ben Franklin’s World is an award-winning podcast. It’s for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our world. Each episode features an interview with a historian who shares their unique insights into our early American past. It is a production of Colonial Williamsburg Innovation Studios.
For a full list of this week’s New York Almanack podcasts announcements click HERE.