International Scots – James Wilson, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA

On the occasion of Independence Day 2012, the International Story looks to its pioneering International Scottish students, and there is no one so apt to celebrate Independence Day as James Wilson, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA and University of Glasgow Alumnus.

James Wilson was born in Carskerdo, Fife, in 1742 and began his studies in Scotland, attending various classes at the University of Glasgow between 1762 and 1765.  

James Wilson, on several occasions, signed the Student Receipt Book used for borrowing books. This particular signature from 1762 for a Theology class under William Leechman, Professor of Divinity, was followed by that of fellow student, Tretyakov. Such pioneering students, as Wilson and Tretyakov, would have been attracted by pioneering Professors.

In 1764, Wilson also signed the stent roll for John Anderson’s Natural Philosophy class. Anderson, or “Jolly Jack Phosphorus” to his students, was a leading Scientist and pioneer of vocational education for working people in his belief the application of science to industry. As well as being a leading Scientist, aquianted with Benjamin Franklin, Anderson was also known for his radical politics. Other such influencing factors during Wilson’s years at Glasgow would have been the Wealth of Nation‘s author Adam Smith, at that time Professor of Moral Philosophy (1752-1764), who endorsed American independence, and his former student, John Millar, Professor of Law from 1761-1801, and himself a supporter of American independence.

Without attaining a degree, this young Scottish scholar and his education were to have a marked bearing on his future successes and indeed those of his new country, British America, where he moved at the age of 24. He began tutoring in Philadelphia College (modern day University of Pennsylvania) and was awarded an honorary Master of Arts thereafter. A Prominent lawyer, and early advocate of American independence, Wilson was a member of the Committee of Detail producing the first draft of the United States Constitution in 1787.  As well as being one of the Founding Fathers, Wilson also became the first professor of law at the College of Philadelphia (1790), an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1789-98 ) and considered as among the first American legal philosophers.  James Wilson was indeed a pioneering and international Scot.

We wish you a happy Independence Day!

Dr Martin Clagett has been undertaking research into James Wilson and his Scottish background for a forthcoming publication.


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Filed under Europe, North America

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