08/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Independence Week Declaration 101: A "Forgotten Founder" Worth Knowing

In the third installment of my Independence Week Refresher Course, I focus on a man who most of us never heard of. But the United States of America exists, in part, because of his efforts.

Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, a few names are familiar. Most Americans, if pressed, can probably name a true handful --Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John and Sam Adams, and John Hancock, he of the famous signature.

But among the other men who set their names on the Declaration --in essence, signing a death warrant for committing treason against the most powerful man on earth, King George III-- are a collection of some extraordinary characters, who for the most part are forgotten. One of these "Forgotten Founders" is James Wilson, whose contributions to the creation of the United States of America were obscured by his later disgrace.

Scottish by birth (in 1742), Wilson came to America in 1766. He soon found a place in the legal offices of John Dickinson, then one of the richest men in America. He also began to speculate in real estate, as many of the other Founding Fathers did. That would be his downfall.

In 1774, Wilson wrote a pamphlet called "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament." In it, he argued that the British Parliament had no authority over the colonies. This pamphlet was one of the first convincing legal arguments for American independence. Although it lacks Jefferson's poetry, Wilson's essay contained some ideas that have since become familiar:

All men are by nature, equal and free. No one has a right to authority over another without his consent.... The consequence is, that the happiness of the society is the first law of every society.

As a member of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Congress, Wilson was an outspoken advocate of independence. But his constituents were more cautious. Then, Wilson met with some of the people who elected him, and it was agreed that he could vote for independence. He brought Pennsylvania into the "Yes" column. For that alone, he probably deserves more credit on July 4th.

Wilson next appears in history when a riot broke out in Philadelphia in the middle of the Revolution. Working class residents of the city were angry because of skyrocketing prices, due in part to hoarding of supplies by Philadelphia's wealthy merchants. While about 30 of these merchants, including fellow Signer Robert Morris, were barricaded in Wilson's Philadelphia home, an angry mob wheeled out a cannon and attacked the house in what was known as the "Fort Wilson Riot." Wilson and the others were rescued by a detachment of Pennsylvania militiamen, but five people died in the fighting. They left that out of your textbook, I bet.

In the summer of 1787, Wilson became one of the central figures in the debates over the Constitution. With the Constitution ratified, Wilson then lobbied George Washington --a bit too aggressively for Washington's taste -- for the post of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Washington instead appointed Wilson an associate justice of the first Supreme Court.

But Wilson, who had continued his land speculation and even had a Utopian vision of bringing in boatloads of immigrants to work new lands he was acquiring, got caught in one of America's first economic meltdowns. While a sitting justice, he fell deeply into debt and was eventually sent to debtor's prison --the first, and so far only member of the Supreme Court to go to jail.

Faced with more debt, he essentially went on the lam, ahead of creditors and the sheriff. He went to North Carolina where he was jailed a second time. After his release, Wilson contracted malaria, and died, penniless, of a stroke in August, 1798, an embarrassment to his friends and fellow Federalists. Buried in North Carolina, Wilson's remains were later moved to Philadelphia's Christ Churchyard.

Wilson had a hand in the creation of the Declaration and the Constitution -- he was a "Founder," a "Signer" and a "Framer." But in the end, he was disgraced and forgotten.

A portrait of Wilson from the University of Pennsylvania Law School:

My previous Independence Week blogs can be found at:

And read more about the Revolutionary era in America's Hidden History and Don't Know Much About History.