Born in Scotland and educated at the University of St. Andrews, James Wilson emigrated to the British colonies in 1765 in search of new opportunities, fame and fortune. He tutored briefly in Philadephia but found more allure in law. Within three years of his arrival, Wilson opened a private law practice in Reading, Pennsylvania. Within a few years, his practice stretched over seven counties in the colony.
Wilson served as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. At first, he opposed separation from England, but followed the instructions of the state assembly and signed the Declaration of Independence.
Wilson was also a member of the Constitutional Convention where he served on the Committee of Detail, which was responsible for writing the draft of the Constitution. Wilson was a strong advocate of popular sovereignty and a strong national government. Wilson hoped for an appointment as Chief Justice on the new Supreme Court. That chair went to Jay, but Washington made Wilson one of the first five justices on the national tribunal.
Wilson was caught up in the credit cycle and remained in constant fear of jail stemming from his mountain of bad debts. In 1796, while riding circuit, his creditors managed to have him jailed. He sought refuge in the Edenton, North Carolina, home of fellow justice James Iredell. He was soon identified and imprisoned. He finally arranged his release, but he never left Edenton. He died in a dingy inn adjoining the Edenton Court House.
Wilson's greatest contribution to the Constitution occurred at Philadelphia in 1787. He displayed a measure of ability in only one opinion during his eight years of service on the High Court.