James Wilson: Foundations of a Founder

Hey, remember this guy?

You do? Really?

Well, nobody else does. Sure, he’s the guy we have to thank for the most important parts of the Constitution, but nobody tells you that in school. Sure, he was one of the major forces inventing the “American Mind” that this comic is presently building up to, but unless you’re a history geek or a reader of this comic, you’ve probably never heard his name. Let’s fix that.

As I may have mentioned, I’m back in school getting yet another degree, so I can join my wife in Academia. For one of my classes, we were supposed to write a little 10-page historiography of the biographies written about a notable person. I chose this guy. But it turned out there are only a couple of biographies out there, and they both kinda suck. That’s not enough for a historiography, even one that’s only a few pages long. So my professor suggested that I instead write a brief biography myself. She said she’d be okay with it going over ten pages.

As I drove around, poking through archives here and there (and finally visiting Independence Hall for the first time in my life), I noticed something weird. The stuff he did in America may be completey forgotten by history, which is a sin and a shame, but at least it’s fairly well-documented. But he was already an adult when he emigrated here from Scotland. What’s the story of all those formative years? Those are the years that shaped the man who would shape American government. And nobody knew diddly-squat about that period of his life. And the minuscule bits that historians thought they knew weren’t even correct.

So if you’re interested, here’s the paper I turned in today. It’s a bit over ten pages, because I wound up writing those missing first chapters of his life. I did a lot of research, and discovered some surprising new facts. And I hope it helps us understand who this fellow was, and why.

I knew early on that I really wanted to share it with you all once it was turned in. And as always, your comments and criticisms are incredibly welcome. ESPECIALLY criticisms! 

Hope you like it!

(And now we can return to this Yahweh fella. It’s starting to look like he’s going places.)

Support the Guide on Patron!

Be sure to share your comments in the Class Participation section below -- that's the best part! Also, you can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through pages quickly.

Use this link to buy the books, and a portion of the proceeds goes to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Join the conversation! There are now 19 comments on this chapter's page James Wilson: Foundations of a Founder. What are your thoughts?
  1. Anonymous says

    Awesome, always like to read little asides into history! A little over ten pages seems to be a good re-

    (looks at page count of PDF)

    …you could’ve just sold this as a biography

  2. STM says

    What subjects are you going to teach? Do you have a dissertation planned? I thought you could teach with a JD.

    • The JD has never been much of an entrée into academia. An academic degree is generally the prerequisite. And on top of that, you should probably have a few published articles under your belt. Exceptions are made for those few who went the academic route of school-federal clerkship-school. But in some disciplines such as criminology, the job notices will be clear that JDs need not apply (and real-world experience of the criminal justice system is an automatic three strikes. not even joking). Plus, ever since the demand curve for lawyers shifted after the 2008 crunch, there has been a glut of lawyers looking to transition into academia, making the JD even less helpful. Yes, there are schools that are fine with just a JD—I’ve been shortlisted with nothing more—but an academic rather than a professional degree opens the door a little wider. And hell, I love this kind of shit. Research and writing? Bring it on! It’s what I do.

      If I could choose anything to teach it would be either law or history. Any law. Any history. This should come as no surprise.

      I have a three or four papers of original scholarship that could be worthy of publication with a little spit and polish. But the thesis I’m trying to finish up right now is on the effects of the Albigensian Crusade on the process of state formation in medieval France. Obviously that was at a time when France is not generally regarded as being in the process of state formation, and the usual elements of state formation were defined by post-1848 pundits to apply to post-Westphalian states, so I’ve had to derive a completely different set of elements to look for. And then I’ve had to look for them among the bits and pieces of evidence those French folk bothered to leave behind. So of course I’m enjoying myself immensely, but everyone who’s tried to read this far has been snoring gently for a few minutes. That’s fine, hush, here’s your blanket, sleep tight.

  3. STM says

    Comment: I have never seen an academic paper cite Reddit before. Sometimes it seems like Reddit is as close to the vox populi as the Internet comes. Quora is also good. Are online fora accepted as reliable sources?

    Criticism: I do not see a citation for the Pennsylvania legislature prohibiting delegates from speaking in favor of independence. Is this common knowledge among your audience? As a non-historian citizen of Pennsylvania, I have never heard of it. Why did PA make this prohibition? Could the delegates vote for independence even though they could not advocate for it?

    • Teachers often skip over this bit, but Pennsylvania’s provincial assembly was adamantly against separation. They believed that reconciliation with Britain was the right way to go. Ever since March 1776, the assembly’s instructions forbade their delegation from supporting independence. It was very awkward for the PA delegates to the 2nd Continental Congress, not least for the fact that they were meeting downstairs from the provincial assembly in the very same building.

      Pennsylvania wasn’t alone, either. New Jersey and Delaware were also against independence almost until the end. New York wasn’t even authorized to take a position one way or the other. It was a real mess.

      While the colonial delegations were at this impasse, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger “Shut Up” Sherman, and Robert Livingston took off on June 7 to draft the damn thing. Not knowing if anyone would even be willing to sign it. Jefferson holed up for most of the next two weeks to come up with his first draft—that’s right, two weeks. The arguments he needed to make were apparently not as self-evident even to TJ as they may seem today. They certainly weren’t self-evident to the rest of the people in the colonies. When that committee came back with Jefferson’s draft (after a little tweaking by Franklin and Adams), it was June 28.

      Nobody liked it. Nobody.

      After three days and something like 80 or 100 amendments (I forget the precise number, but it was around that many—including getting rid of Jefferson’s language blaming Britain for foisting on the colonies the evil and pernicious practice of slavery, do with that what you will), most of the state delegations were eventually ready to agree by July 1. But not all of them.

      New York had never received any instructions one way or the other. So it had to abstain. (See also, the Constitutional Convention, where all but Hamilton abstained by fucking off back to New York, and Hamilton had just gotten back from doing that himself). This wasn’t an unprincipled position to take, as the British army was in the process of winning a series of victories on New York’s turf. It’s hard to declare independence when one’s sovereign is demonstrating very clearly that it owns your ass.

      Delaware’s delegation of two had made progress, in that one was now pro-independence while the other remained pro-reconciliation. South Carolina was voting no. The colonies were nowhere near agreeement, and it was still a mess.

      As for Pennsylvania, while Jefferson was coming up with his first draft, the assembly had finally relented. It now allowed its delegates to vote according to their own individual conscience. This was no help. Wilson had done his best to convert the rest of the delegation to the side of independence, but it was still just him, Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and some others. The other half of the delegation—including its leader John Dickinson—remained opposed.

      It was a crisis, and in a crisis things happen fast or not at all. The pro-independence Delaware delegate rode all night through a thunderstorm to rouse his colony’s legislature, and get them to authorize his colleague to vote yes. This he did, and raced back to let him know it was now okay. That next day, July 2, South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (the youngest signer) passionately appealed to the rest of his delegation to vote yes because united they would stand, but divided they would fall. And the Pennsylvania delegation was still anything but unanimous.

      To break the deadlock, John Dickinson and Robert Morris abstained. With them out of the count, that gave Wilson and Franklin and the other “yes” votes the majority they needed to adopt the Declaration—if not by the unanimous vote of all delegates, at least by the unanimous vote of the delegations. The same kind of thing would happen again in 1787, if you recall.

      And that was just the vote. You want to talk about the signing? That’s a whole nother essay. People who weren’t there on July 2, but were elected afterwards, signed it. One guy who was supposed to sign it couldn’t make it, and wouldn’t be able to sign until 1777. New York’s legislature did adopt the declaration later in July, but you know who still refused to sign it? Robert Livingston. The same guy who was on the committee that drafted the bloody thing. And when do you think it was signed, July 4? Nope. August 2. I mean, kinda. Sorta.

      I don’t care. I’m still grilling burgers and watching fireworks on July 4 like everyone else. It’s so cool how Independence Day seems to fall on the same day as the Fourth of July so often.

    • Thank you! I will!

      First I want to go to Fife, poke around some records in the archives at St. Andrews… I hear they might have a golf course there, so maybe play a couple rounds… The life of research is hard, but I’ll make the sacrifice.

  4. Nikolay S says

    On pages 142-144, you reuse the statement “[James Wilson] was not a well-employed anything.” along with the mason salary factoid twice in a similar way. Is that an intentional emphasis?

    • Oops. Although I am a big fan of repetition to make a point, that sounds like an editing error. Like I said it in place A, then moved it over to place B, but forgot to revise place A. Thanks for the heads-up!

      You should see what a mess my writing is in the editing stage. Bits and pieces of cut-and-paste flying all over the place. In addition to repetitions like this, I have to be on the lookout for thoughts that suddenly break off and go nowhere because and that is why post-Vedic trading systems did not have as much effect on the process of state formation in India as was once thought.

  5. SeanR says

    Page 93 “chad hecked out”
    I suspect you intended this to read “had checked out”, but if you instead intended to indicate that this total “Chad” had “hecked out” of there, I suppose I must accept that the English language is not a static thing, but rather a living tongue.
    Page 139 “Improvement comes improving oneself, after all.”
    I have no idea what you’re trying to say here.

    Reading this, I get the impression of a brilliant, but largely asocial, individual. Likely what we’d now call neurodivergent. I can think of a person or two like this; who is fine in person but never writes, never calls, and rarely visits.

    I look forward to reading the rest. You have now robbed me of several hours of sleep, but I’ll not begrudge them. Saturday is a day for sleeping in.

    P.S. This is probably worth updating the thumbnail for the comic. I only tripped over this, after deciding to see if the next-comic link was working, and finding that it was.

    • Thanks!

      “chad hecked out” Ouch. I make all kinds of typos when my fingers go faster than my brain (or vice versa). But I’ve never typo’d a spoonerism before. That’s a new one.

      “improvement comes improving oneself…” I had to puzzle over that one to figure out what I was trying to say, too. I think I had written a longer sentence, deleted a bit, then some interruption drove what I’d been doing out of working memory. It had to have been something along the lines of “improvement also means improving oneself,” I reckon.

      You want to talk about neurodivergent, you should read up on Adam Smith. The more I learned about him, the more boxes I checked off in my DSM. I’m no psychiatrist, but I’d bet a dollar the boy was way up there on the autism spectrum, saved by high intelligence that helped him with masking and functioning.

  6. Stephen Peter says

    Wow. On so many levels, just, wow.

    First, I take it you were never a fan of the comic Calvin and Hobbes. More specifically, this comic: [link]

    Second, what was your professor’s reaction to your “ten page paper”?

    Third, if our history books have been -this- wrong all these years about our founding fathers, what of history can we really trust?

    Fourth, do you have a time turner? If not, then between being a lawyer, comic book publisher, graduate student, James Wilson historian, and family man, do you find time to eat and sleep, let alone grill burgers and watch fireworks on the 4th of July?

    Finally, and as always, thank you.

    • First: Not a fan of Calvin and Hobbes? Me? How dare you, sir. Faugh! Fie! Harrumph! Calvin and Hobbes is one of the greatest things that humanity has yet produced.

      Second: I’m guessing she liked it? All I know is I got an A on it.

      Third: That’s one of the neat things about history, we’re always learning something new. Even about stuff we had every reason to think was thoroughly well-settled.

      Fourth: I stopped watching TV. It’s amazing how much time that freed up. Not even joking. If I’m awake I’m doing something, whether it’s walking the dog, doing things with the family, cooking some fun new recipe, or working. When I get sleepy I stop working and go to bed. When I wake up I start right in on doing things again.

      Finally, thank YOU very much! I really appreciate it!

  7. Madeleine says

    Is it too late to offer spellchecking services? (I found a few instances of wrong words in places, things that are easily overlooked.)

      • Alright then. Disclaimer: I am not a native English speaker, so some of the below may be incomplete and/or wrong. Also, I’m using the page numbers in the footer, not in the pdf reader, as can be seen from the Roman numerals I start with.

        page iii:
        “Upcoming Sections.” has a period that does not seem to belong there.

        page viii:
        “Imagine, then how” => “Imagine, then, how”

        page 1:
        in note 14:
        “Alexander Hamilton noted the how investors” – that “the” should probably not be there.

        What is “Id.” in the annotations? I couldn’t figure that one out.

        page 9:
        “anothe year” (missing “r”)

        page 14:
        “t is the glorious destiny of man to be always progressive”
        Is that missing maybe a capital I or an apostrophe at the beginning?

        page 18:
        “papers now become part” => “papers now became part” (I think it should be past tense)

        page 26:
        The end of note 61 is missing a period.

        Page 32:
        The last annotation paragraph says that Alison was baptized in 1713. In the text above you say that in 1742, after 8 years of marriage, she was perhaps twenty-one. I would disagree with that: 1742-1713=29 (which makes her 21 at the time of marriage – way less icky than age 13 🧐)

        page 33:
        “Which small town the settled in is unclear.” =>
        “Which small town they settled in is unclear.”

        page 60:
        The “sinecure” part is more or less twice in there, once in the text and once in the annotation.

        page 74:
        “Hobbs” or “Hobbes”? (I hadn’t heard about the first one up to now, but then again, I’m no scientist in philosophy.)

        page 83:
        “what it morally right” => “what is morally right”
        “what it virtuous” => “what is virtuous”
        There is also “chad hecked out” 😆

        page 90:
        “demonstrating, for example ,that” “and be able to”

        page 114:
        “under the tutelage even the esteemed John Dickinson”
        “under the tutelage even of the esteemed John Dickinson”

        page 127:
        annotation 232: “may be touch” => “may touch” or “may be touching”

        page 128:
        “and also if makes” => “and also if one makes”

        page 129: improvement has been mentioned already in thread 😊

        page 144:
        “he would need money with on which to live” =>
        “he would need money on which to live”
        “he would need money with which to live” (maybe this is what it was before and you forgot to remove the “with”?)
        “a seat in a carriage And James Wilson was not a well-employed anything.” – that last phrase was used already on the page before. I think the sentence needs to end with “carriage.”

        page 145:
        “-would wonder” => “-they would wonder”

        page 150:
        “agree, however that” => “agree, however, that” (add comma)

        page 153:
        “They certainly had no problem with him” is missing a period.

        Page 159: There appear to be extraneous spaces before “Ruin.”

        Cannot wait to read the missing chapters 😊

          • I just seem to be good at spotting irregularities. I also have to read slower to grasp the content, so I stumble more easily over things that don’t fit. However, I would never be able to create such a text in a way that wouldn’t immediately make native speakers go “This and that part don’t sound quite right.”

            There is one part about James Wilson that reminds me of myself. I am equally bad at keeping up communications even nowadays. If someone isn’t within my sphere of daily or weekly places to visit (such as this site, or a forum I’m member in), they are likely to never hear or read from me again. I wouldn’t answer their mails – those are easy to postpone to the point where it doesn’t seem worth the mental effort anymore – and I hate phones so mine is usually switched off. If you’ve been part of my past and want to reconnect, you better not talk about the past, but rather about something current that doesn’t involve triggering guilt and the urge to disconnect again. Brain is complicated.

Class Participation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Support the Guide on Patron!