NORFOLK, Neb. – James Wilson has not received the same accolades as some of America’s other founding fathers, but the stateman’s influence on the establishment of the nation is as notable as that of his contemporaries of Washington, Madison, Hamilton, or Franklin, according to a book written by a Northeast Community College faculty member.
According to the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding, he was an immigrant from Scotland who became one of the premier minds and leading figures of the American Founding. He played a critical role throughout the deliberations in Philadelphia that brought forth the Constitution; becoming one of the few men who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He would go on to become a central figure in the Ratifying Convention in Pennsylvania and was one of six original justices appointed by George Washington to the first Supreme Court of the United States.
In his book, James Wilson, The Anxious Founder, Northeast Community College History/Political Science Instructor Dr. Michael Taylor has written about Wilson’s life that began as an “Atlantic World success story,” with mounting intellectual, political, and legal triumphs, but ends in despair.
“Each of his achievements brought greater anxiety about his place in the revolutionary world,” Taylor said. “James Wilson's life story is a testament to the success that tens of thousands of Scottish immigrants achieved after their trans-Atlantic voyage, but it also reminds us that not all had a happy ending.”
The book provides a more nuanced and complete picture of Wilson’s contributions in American history. Taylor said his influence was far greater than just the attention paid to his legal lectures.
“His is a very human story of a Scottish immigrant who experienced success and acclaim for his activities on behalf of the American people during his public service, but in his personal affairs, and particularly financial life, he suffered the great heights and deep lows worthy of a Greek tragedy,” Taylor said. “James Wilson's life is an entry point into the events of the latter half of the 18th century and the impact of the Scottish Enlightenment on American society, discourse, and government.”
Wilson captured Taylor’s attention while he was working at a center in Virginia named after another founder who became the fourth president. He said the only full-length biography on Wilson was published in 1956, which allowed him to help advance his story with research that wasn’t available to the previous author.
“I was working at James Madison’s Montpelier at the Center for the Constitution where we provided unique professional development opportunities to teachers from all over the United States. I was asked to begin researching James Wilson to complement our in-service programs on James Madison,” he said. “From the first book I read on Wilson, until the book appeared in print, was a winding fifteen year journey.”
Wilson’s impact on the nation continues in many ways to this day. His conceptions include systems that are responsible for ensuring election to the country’s highest offices. One is the current method of electing the President of the United States. Taylor said Wilson argued time and again for a direct election, by the people, of the President but was continually rebuffed by his colleagues.
“Wilson put forth the proposal for what we know as the Electoral College as a way to bring some public input into the selection of a President. His colleagues wanted to allow Congress to select a President, which Wilson vehemently disagreed with,” he said. “Eventually, at the very end of the Constitutional Convention, he wore them down and they adopted the Electoral College.”
The other area of Wilson’s influence is the process of electing U.S. Senators. Wilson argued for the direct election of senators by the people, not state legislatures that was the method until the adoption of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913, which changed the way senators are elected.
The title of Taylor’s book did not come from the author, but from another who has published more than 50 books over his life. Taylor admits he’s not a craftsman of developing catchy or engaging titles and had a ponderous one as a placeholder while he was working on it.
“One day, I received an email from my advisor, Dr. Peter Hoffer at the University of Georgia, suggesting the title: James Wilson: Anxious Founder. It sounded better than what I had, so it was adopted,” he said. “However, it was changed during the publication process where “the” was inserted before Anxious Founder. When I asked my editor at Lexington Books about this, it was too late in the production process to make the change. So, the amended title remained.”
History scholars call Taylor’s book on Wilson an innovative biography. William Ewald, of the University of Pennsylvania, said Wilson is one of the “forgotten” Founders … who has been surprisingly overlooked in many of the standard histories of the American Revolution.
“Michael Taylor’s excellent new book, much of it based on original research, paints an engaging portrait of this major figure in American life, and a highly readable introduction to his contributions to the founding of the American Republic,” Ewald said.
“Ranked among the most important political theorists of the Founding Era, Wilson’s ideas are compared by Professor Taylor with several other foreign-born and foreign-educated Americans,” said James Kaminski, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Although Wilson argued that the Constitution of 1787 was limited to enumerated powers, his 1785 arguments espousing implied national powers were revived over a century later by President Theodore Roosevelt and served as the foundation for the concept of a living Constitution promoted during and after the Progressive Era.
Taylor is currently working on a companion book focusing on Pennsylvania’s Ratification Convention of 1787. It showcases Wilson as the leader of the Federalist members pushing for adoption of the proposed Constitution. As a result, it allows the author to tell a broader story than just a relentless focus on Wilson, but he does remain a central character. Taylor said there was not enough room in the first book to be as thorough as he wanted, so a stand-alone book was needed.
When he writes, Taylor keeps an image of the classroom with his students in mind and tries to have a conversation with them through the book. He said while academic authors often write for their peers, he writes for his students.
“I hope readers will come away with a new appreciation of the role James Wilson, a Scottish immigrant, played in the founding of his adopted country and, in some small way, become more acquainted with the world in which our nation was founded. A bonus would be for readers to become interested enough about the period for them to seek out other authors and stories from the founding era.”
James Wilson, The Anxious Founder, is published by Lexington Books. Hardcover and Kindle versions are available through online retailers. A paperback version will be available beginning March 15.