At the Jan. 8 meeting, members of the Edenton Tea Party Chapter, NSDAR, learned about James Wilson, an American patriot, who was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution.
Program speaker Charles Boyette, has been an historic site interpreter since 2008 with Historic Edenton State Historic Site. Boyette, who was born and raised in Windsor, graduated from Lawrence Academy. He has degrees from East Carolina University in public history a master’s in US history.
Since coming to work at Historic Edenton, Charles Boyette has conducted research for the state-wide Civil War Sesquicentennial Celebration in 2011 with emphasis on the Albemarle Region. He assisted in the care and maintenance of the museum artifact collections, as well as helping care for the historic structures. He also has worked tracing and documenting the historical provenance of incoming historic artifacts. Recently, he has largely been involved writing short historic articles for posting on social media on a variety of subjects including a series of profiles of significant women of the Albemarle region for the Year of the Woman Initiative. Also, he has been working on digitalizing the site’s photos and organizing them into an easily accessed collection. He created a program on the life of Supreme Court Justice James Wilson. Boyette says that history has always been his lifelong passion.
Signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution, Wilson was born in Scotland in 1742 at Carskedo in the County of Fife to parents who were farmers. His father was an elder of the Church of Scotland; the family had seven children among whom James was the eldest son. His family was preparing him to be clergyman. To this end he was given a traditional classical education at Cupar Grammar School, and from there he proceeded to St. Andrews. This is a very old and prestigious college — even today it is considered one the top-ranking schools in the world. He received a scholarship which covered most of his expenses. He next moved to St. Mary’s College which was the divinity school that was a part of St. Andrews.
Toward the end of his studies at university his father died, and he had to leave school to seek employment. To obtain financial support, Wilson took up a position as a tutor in a gentleman’s family. This was a common way for recent graduates or college students to earn a living while completing college or after graduating.
In 1765, Wilson decided to seek advancement in the New World. He came to America through New York, but quickly went to Philadelphia to seek his fortune.
In 1766, Wilson obtained a position as instructor of Latin at the College of Philadelphia. With his education and experience Wilson was quickly able to establish himself. During this period, he, like many colonists, left the large cities to seek opportunity on the frontier. He moved to Carlisle, PA, in 1770, which turned out to be a judicious move as Carlisle had a large contingent of Scottish immigrant residents who would have provided social introductions and some social support. Wilson’s practice began to flourish, and he established himself as a leading citizen in the town. His legal reputation, particularly about litigation over land deals, reached beyond the boundaries of the immediate area of Carlisle. Conflicts arose with these colonies and later states granting or selling land with ill-defined boundaries and contested titles. This created a ready market for a legal service — especially for a young lawyer with an interest in land development.
It was during this period that Wilson got one of the first big opportunities of his career. Robert Morris and Thomas Willing appointed him to be their legal representative in some land deals. During this period, he also began to take an interest in politics. He had the support of the Whigs early on and had enough stature to be appointed by Pennsylvania to the Continental Congress, where he supported the interest of land investors.
With the coming of the Revolution, Wilson was firmly committed to the patriot cause. He continued to be active in Congress and served several terms between 1775-1777, 1782-83, and 1785-1787. His political activities during this time included promoting the idea of strong central government. During his tenure in Congress, Wilson also supported an attempt to provide the new national government with solid financial resources. Wilson supported the establishment of banks as a means of expanding credit and investment.
In 1787, Wilson was appointed to represent Pennsylvania at the Federal Convention. Wilson took a wide interest in all aspects of the legislation involved with the Federal Convention. Much of the debate centered on the establishment of the three branches of government — judicial, legislative and executive — with most of the debate centered around the creation of the executive branch. Wilson viewed the executive branch as needing a certain amount of independence from the other branches. To this end, he supported the proposal of the executive having the right to veto legislation. With the work of the Convention largely completed, it was up to the states to ratify the Convention’s work.
Wilson’s role on the national scene culminated with his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court by George Washington in 1790. That year, he also was appointed as law professor at University of Pennsylvania.
By 1792, Wilson’s personal fortune was ebbing considerably. His investments in the ever-precarious land market, in which he had bought thousands of acres for speculation, had placed him deeply in debt. There were several states he could not go into for fear of being arrested for debt. Wilson’s debts continued to mount, and he sought refuge with his friend Justice James Iredell of Edenton. By 1798, his debts had taken their toll, and he was essentially hiding in Edenton. His struggles caught up with him, he died in Edenton on Aug. 21, 1798. He was buried at Hayes Plantation, but was re-interred in 1906 at Christ Churchyard, Philadelphia.
Any woman who believes she may be eligible for National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR) membership should contact Edenton Tea Party Chapter Registrar Candy Roth – 252-548-2648 or Membership Chairman Beth Taylor – 252-482-3592 for information.