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James Wilson was one of six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. In the Federal Convention of 1787, he spoke more often than all but one other delegate (Gouverneur Morris), and by all accounts he played a critical role in framing the Constitution. His early defense of the proposed Constitution and his leadership in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention did much to secure the document's acceptance. Wilson served as one of the new nation's first Supreme Court Justices, and his Lectures on Law contain some of the period's most profound commentary on the Constitution and American law. In spite of these tremendous accomplishments, few Americans have ever heard of Wilson. However, over the past several decades, scholars have come to a deeper appreciation of his contributions to the creation of the American republic. This emerging consensus is reflected well in a survey that Gary L. Gregg and I took of more than 100 political scientists, historians, and law professors. We asked these scholars to list and rank America's most underrated Founders. James Wilson easily topped the list of 73 forgotten Founders, and a diverse array of scholars agreed that he should be numbered among the most important.[1] An overview of Wilson's life and accomplishments with a focus on his political and legal ideas demonstrates that Wilson is a sophisticated thinker who had a significant impact on America's Founding. Although he did not win every battle in the Federal Convention of 1787, America's constitutional system as it has developed over time closely resembles his vision.


Previously published by The Heritage Foundation, June 2009, First Principles Series Report #26