A U.S. Supreme Court Justice Who Met an Unfortunate End

Many United States and North Carolina history enthusiasts are aware that President George Washington nominated James Iredell, Sr. (namesake of Iredell County, North Carolina) as one of the first justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Far fewer are aware that another Washington appointee to the high court called North Carolina home, albeit for only the final year of his life.

He was James Wilson — one of only six Americans to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. To apply a common saying to Wilson’s career, “He was in good company!”

Indeed, few men were as influential during the time. Some historians have contended that only James Madison held more influence than did Wilson at the Constitutional Convention. Wilson’s praiseworthy career, however, ended on a somewhat pathetic note: He has been (to date) the only U.S. Supreme Court justice to be imprisoned.

A native of Scotland and a graduate of St. Andrews College, Wilson crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1765 for the American colonies. Soon after reaching the colonies, he started teaching English literature and Latin. Three years later, he was allowed to walk beyond the separation between the official and public spaces in a courtroom — he was an attorney and had “passed the bar.”

Wilson soon emerged as a national leader. He not only wrote political tracts during the Revolutionary War era, but he also acted as chairman of a committee of correspondence and was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

After the United States had gained its independence, Wilson served as a delegate to the
Constitutional Convention and signed the Constitution. He urged delegates to include a system of checks and balances in the document. As a result, Wilson advocated a federal form of government, a two-house legislature, and an independent judiciary.

His fellow delegates rejected some of his ideas, though. Wilson believed the president should serve a three-year term rather than the four-year term that was finally ratified. Wilson argued that the president should be selected by popular vote; his counterparts preferred that an electoral college choose the chief executive.

Washington acknowledged Wilson’s contributions by nominating him in 1790 to the Supreme Court, where he served until his death in 1798. While on the court, a friendship developed between Wilson and Iredell. Even though the two had their professional disagreements — Iredell cast the lone dissent, for instance, in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) — Iredell’s personal correspondence indicates that the two jurists got along splendidly.

Wilson read widely and was a serious thinker who aspired to be a well-known legal commentator. He delivered numerous influential lectures at the College of Philadelphia
(they were later published posthumously by his son). His Lectures on Law cited numerous intellectual influences, including John Locke, William Blackstone, Hugo Grotius, and Samuel Pufendorf. In 1907, historian P.H. Alexander remarked that Wilson’s “brain conceived and created a nation,” and his mind anticipated future political developments.

Alexander predicted that Americans would frequently consult Wilson’s lectures. Truth be told, Wilson generally has been overlooked. This may be because of the jurist’s tragic end.

It all started with Wilson’s quest to be wealthy — a goal that is not inherently flawed, by the way. To make a long financial history short, Wilson consistently invested poorly in land speculation and continued borrowing money that he could not repay. (He owed one creditor $197,000). As a result, Wilson, a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice, ended up in debtor’s prison.

After his release, an evasive Wilson traveled south to Edenton and lived out the remainder of his increasingly stressful life. Wilson was buried just outside of Edenton, on property owned by former governor and U.S. Sen. Samuel Johnston. Wilson was exhumed in 1906 and reburied in Christ Church’s cemetery in Philadelphia.