Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Wilson, James

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WILSON, James, signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. near St. Andrew's, Scotland, 14 Sept., 1742; d. in Edenton, N. C., 28 Aug., 1798. After receiving a university education at St. Andrew's, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, he emigrated to this country about 1763, remained for some time in New York city, and in 1766 went to Philadelphia, Pa., where he was for several months tutor in Latin at the City college, which was afterward merged in the University of Pennsylvania. He left this employment to study law with John Dickinson, was admitted to the bar in 1767, began practice in Reading, but soon removed to Carlisle, and was established in his profession before the Revolution, having made his reputation by an argument in an important land case against the proprietors of Pennsylvania. He espoused the popular cause from the beginning of the difficulties with the British government, contributing many essays to the controversy. He was a member of the Provincial meeting of deputies of 15 July, 1774, and a delegate to the Provincial convention of 23 Jan., 1775. When three representatives were added to the Pennsylvania delegation on 6 May, 1775, he was selected with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Willing, and was present at the opening of congress on 10 May. He was successively re-elected on 3 Nov., 1775, 20 July, 1776, and 10 March, 1777, but was superseded at the election of 14 Sept., 1777, because he had hesitated to declare for independence while there remained a prospect of obtaining justice from parliament. He had resisted separation on 8 June, 1776, after the legislature of Pennsylvania had withdrawn its restrictions on the votes of its representatives; yet on 1 July he and John Morton were the first of the Pennsylvania delegates to vote for independence, and they were the only ones, except Benjamin Franklin, who voted for the adoption of the declaration on 4 July. He took an important part in the discussion of military and commercial questions, and opposed the views of the southern delegates on questions of slavery and taxation, believing it to be the duty of congress to discourage slave-holding. In July, 1775, when the Indians were divided into three departments, he was appointed by congress commissioner and superintendent of Indian affairs for the middle department. He was a member of committees to consider the state of the colonies and measures for their defence, to supply the treasury, to investigate the condition of the army, to suppress internal enemies, to re-enforce Washington's army, and to strengthen the American cause in Canada; was one of the authors of an appeal to the assembly of Jamaica, a letter to the people of Canada, and an address to the United colonies, and served on the standing committees for Indian affairs and for hearing appeals on libels from the decisions of the state admiralty courts, as well as on the first board of war. When hostilities began, Wilson was chosen colonel of a battalion of militia that was raised in Cumberland county, with which he took part in the New Jersey campaign of 1776, but afterward he took no part in active operations, owing to his civil appointments. When party spirit caused his removal from the Pennsylvania delegation in congress, he went to Annapolis, Md., and practised there for a year, at the end of which he settled permanently in Philadelphia. On 5 June, 1779, he was appointed advocate-general for the French government in the United States, the appointment being confirmed by letters-patent from the king on 18 Feb., 1781. On 31 Dec., 1781, he was appointed by congress a director of the Bank of North America. He made himself obnoxious to the democracy by denying the right of the town council to regulate the price of food, opposing the more liberal provisions of the constitution, and acting as counsel for Tories who were prosecuted for treason, and when he and other citizens of conservative views were threatened, they gathered in his house, where, on 4 Oct., 1779, they were attacked by the mob and militia, and, after many shots were exchanged, were rescued by the city troop. There was loss of life on both sides, and the feeling against Wilson was such that he absented himself from the city for a time. On 23 May, 1782, he was appointed a brigadier-general of militia. He acted as counsel for Pennsylvania before the court of arbitration that in November, 1782, decided against the claims of Connecticut to the lands of the Wyoming settlement. On 12 Nov. of that year he was re-elected to congress, taking his seat on 2 Jan., 1783. He proposed the plan of general taxation which was adopted on 12 Feb., 1783. He was not a member of congress in 1784, but was returned in 1785, and continued by re-election till the adoption of the present constitution. He was a member of the Federal convention, and in its debates supported direct popular suffrage and a single executive. He exercised much influence in determining the character of the constitution, and was appointed on the committee of detail. He explained and defended the constitution, as finally framed, in the Pennsylvania convention for its ratification. Having been the chief of the Republican party in Pennsylvania, which approved a firmer government than the Federation, and was bitterly opposed by the Constitutional party, Mr. Wilson now became a leader of the Federalists. In the convention of 1789-'90 for framing a new state constitution he successfully advocated the plan of the direct election of state senators. He was appointed on the drafting committee, and prepared the form of the instrument. In October, 1789, President Washington appointed him an associate justice of the U. S. supreme court, and he remained in this office till his death. In 1790 he was appointed professor of law in Philadelphia college, which conferred on him the degree of LL. D. in that year, and in the two following winters he delivered lectures. In March, 1791, he was appointed by the state house of representatives to revise and digest the laws of Pennsylvania, and after the senate had refused to concur he continued the work as a private undertaking, but died before completing the digest. He published, besides other pamphlets, an “Address to the Citizens of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia, 1784), and, with Thomas McKean, “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States” (London, 1792). His “Works,” comprising law lectures, speeches, and legal disquisitions, were published under the direction of Bird Wilson (3 vols., Philadelphia, 1803-'4). — His son, Bird, clergyman, b. in Carlisle, Pa., 8 Jan., 1777; d. in New York city, 14 April, 1859, was graduated in 1792 at the College of Philadelphia, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in Philadelphia in 1797. He was appointed commissioner of bankrupt law, and in 1802 was made president-judge of the court of common pleas in the counties of Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks. He resigned his post in 1818, studied theology under Bishop White, and was ordained deacon in Christ church, Philadelphia, 12 March, 1829, and priest a year later, by the same bishop. Mr. Wilson was rector of St. John's church, Norristown, and St. Thomas's church, Whitemarsh, Pa., in 1819-'21. He received the degree of D. D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1821, and that of LL. D. from Columbia in 1845. He was elected professor of systematic divinity in the Episcopal general theological seminary in 1821, which post he held for nearly thirty years. He was secretary of the house of bishops in 1829-'41. The last few vears of his life were passed in retirement in New York city. Dr. Wilson was an able theologian of the school of Hooker, Tillotson, Waterland, and other like divines of the Church of England, and prepared numerous valuable tractates for the classes under his charge. His chief publications were “Abridgment of the Law by Matthew Bacon” (7 vols., Philadelphia, 1811-'13), and “Memoir of the Life of the Right Rev. William White, D.D., Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of Pennsylvania” (1839). See a “Memorial of the Rev. Bird Wilson, D.D., LL.D.,” by W. White Bronson (1864). — James's kinsman,

Appletons' Wilson James - William.jpg
Appletons' Wilson James - William signature.jpg

William, poet, b. in Perthshire, Scotland, 25 Dec., 1801; d. in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., 25 Aug., 1860. At an early age he was imbued with a passionate love of poetry, derived from his mother, who sang with great beauty the Jacobite songs and ballads of her native land. While a school-boy he lost his father, the generous merchant's death being preceded by his failure in business, and a bachelor brother's fortune in Jamaica was in some way lost to his children, for whom it was intended, so that Wilson's early life was accompanied by many deprivations, including the completion of his education. At twenty-two he became the editor of the Dundee “Literary Olio,” a large proportion of which, both in prose and verse, was from his pen. In 1826 he was induced by influential friends to remove to Edinburgh, where he established himself in business. In the same year he lost his young wife, and he sought relief from his great sorrow in composition. His contributions were welcomed in the “Edinburgh Literary Journal” and other leading periodicals. In 1830 Wilson married Miss Sibbald, of Borthaugh, a descendant of Sir Andrew Sibbald and a niece of James Sibbald, the literary antiquary and editor of the “Chronicle of Scottish Poetry,” also the friend of Robert Burns. At this period the young poet's charming conversation and manners made him a welcome guest in the literary circles of Edinburgh. At the house of Mrs. Grant, of Laggan, he was a constant visitor, and she claimed the privilege of possessing his portrait by Sir John Watson Gordon, from which the accompanying vignette is copied. When thirty-two years of age Wilson removed to the United States and settled at Poughkeepsie, on the Hudson, where he engaged in bookselling and publishing, which he continued till his death, a portion of the time in partnership with the elder brother of Bishops Alonzo and Horatio Potter, and later with his son, James Grant. In the New World, Wilson occasionally contributed in prose and verse — generally anonymously — to various American periodicals, and sometimes sent a contribution to “Blackwood” or “Chambers's Journal.” Selections of his poems appeared in “The Cabinet,” “Modern Scottish Minstrel,” and Longfellow's “Poems of Places,” but he never issued them in a volume, or even collected them, and it was not till 1869 that a portion of his poems were published in Poughkeepsie with a memoir by Benson J. Lossing. A second edition, with additional poems, appeared in 1875, and has since been followed by a third. Willis pronounced one of Wilson's poems “the best modern imitation of the old ballad style that he had ever met with,” and Bryant said “the song in which the writer personates Richard the Lion-hearted during his imprisonment is more spirited than any of the ballads of Aytoun.” All of Wilson's sons by his second marriage served in the civil war, the eldest, with whom the idea of this work originated in 1879, attaining the rank of brigadier-general; the second fell at the head of his company at Fredericksburg, and the youngest, leaving his studies at sixteen, volunteered with several of his classmates and went to the front. — His son, James Grant, b. in Edinburgh, 28 April, 1832, was educated at College Hill, Poughkeepsie, continuing his studies in the languages, music, and drawing, under private teachers, joined his father in business, later becoming his partner. In 1855 he went abroad, and soon after his return established in Chicago the first literary paper published in the northwest, and became known as a public speaker. In 1862 he disposed of his journal and was commissioned major of the 15th Illinois cavalry, becoming soon after acting colonel of the regiment, and taking part in many engagements, and in the Vicksburg campaign. In August, 1863, he accompanied Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to New Orleans, and there accepted, by his advice, the colonelcy of the 4th regiment, United States colored cavalry, and was assigned to duty as aide-de-camp to the commanding general of the Department of the Gulf, with whom he remained till April, 1865, taking part in the Teche, Texas, and Red River campaigns, and in the latter aiding Lieut.-Col. Joseph Bailey in the construction of the Red River dam. During the same period of nearly two years he acted as military agent in Louisiana for the state of New York. When Gen. Banks was relieved, Col. Wilson was brevetted brigadier-general and sent to Port Hudson, where for a time he was in command, and in July he resigned and returned to New York city, where he has since resided, pursuing a literary career, with the exception of several years spent with his family in Europe. Since 1874 he has been a delegate from St. James's church to the New York diocesan conventions, and he was a member of the General convention that met in Richmond, Va. In 1879 he was appointed a member of the board of visitors to the U. S. naval academy, and the following year he was a visitor to the U. S. military academy, delivering the address to the cadets, and preparing the reports of both boards. Gen. Wilson was appointed in 1882, by the governor, chairman of the committee to collect $40,000 as the state's contribution to the Garfield monument. (See vol. ii., p. 604.) Since 1885 he has been president of the New York genealogical and biographical society, is a vice-president of the Association for the reform and codification of the law of nations, a member of the executive committee of the Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and an honorary member of many American and foreign historical and other societies. He was instrumental in erecting a monument over the grave of Fitz-Greene Halleck at Guilford, Conn., and a statue in Central park, New York, the first in honor of an American poet, and is active in the movement for the New York statue of Columbus. (See vol. i., p. 698.) He has published numerous addresses, including those on Col. John Bayard, Com. Isaac Hull, Chief-Justice Kirkpatrick, and Bishop Samuel Provoost, and contributed upward of a hundred articles to “Harper's” and other American and English magazines. Among the principal works that he has written or edited are “Biographical Sketches of Illinois Officers” (Chicago, 1862; 3d ed., 1863); “Love in Letters: Illustrated in the Correspondence of Eminent Persons” (New York, 1867); “Life of Gen. U. S. Grant” (1868; 3d ed., enlarged, 1885); “Life and Letters of Fitz-Greene Halleck” (1869); “Sketches of Illustrious Soldiers” (1874); “Poets and Poetry of Scotland, from the Earliest to the Present Time” (2 vols., London and New York, 1876); “Centennial History of the Diocese of New York, 1785-1885” (New York, 1886); “Bryant and his Friends: Some Reminiscences of the Knickerbocker Writers” (12mo; illustrated ed., 8vo, 1886); “Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography” (6 vols., 1886-'9); and “ Com. Isaac Hull and the Frigate ‘Constitution’ ” (1889).