Vox Populi – Republican Reality: Scotland and the USA 1790-1820

To coincide with Dr. Emma Macleod’s lecture Republican Reality: Scotland and the USA 1790-1820, the fifth in the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies Vox Populi seminar series, we offer up a tale of two WiIsons.  Both were born in Scotland in the 18th century, but are remembered today for their great successes in the new American Republic. 

JusticeJamesWilsonThe first is James Wilson (1742–1798), one of the Founding Fathers of the USA and University of Glasgow Alumnus. James Wilson was a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence; elected twice to the Continental Congress; and a major force in drafting the United States Constitution. A leading legal theorist, he was one of the six original justices appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States.

One of seven children, Wilson was born into a Presbyterian farming family on 14 September 1742, in Carskerdo, Scotland.  He graduated from the University of St. Andrews, before studying in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Wilson attended various classes at the University of Glasgow between 1762 and 1765, and on several occasions he signed the Student Receipt Book used for borrowing books.

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UGSP01343In 1764 Wilson also signed the stent roll for Professor John Anderson’s Natural Philosophy class.  Anderson, or “Jolly Jack Phosphorus” as his students knew him, was a leading scientist and pioneer of vocational education for working people, well 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, Professor of Moral Philosophy (1752-1764), and Smith’s former student John Millar, Professor of Law from 1761-1801, both of whom endorsed American Independence.

Imbued with the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, Wilson moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 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.

Taking up the revolutionary cause in 1774, Wilson published Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament. In this pamphlet he argued that the Parliament had no authority to pass laws for the American colonies because the colonies had no representation in Parliament.  It presented his views that all power derived from the people.  As a member of the Continental Congress in 1776 James Wilson was a firm advocate for independence. However, believing it was his duty to follow the wishes of his constituents, Wilson refused to vote until he had caucused his district, and only then did he vote for independence.

A Prominent lawyer and early advocate of American independence, Wilson’s most lasting impact on the United States of America came as a member of the Committee of Detail, which produced the first draft of the 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); was nominated Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1789-98) by George Washington; and considered as among the first American legal philosophers.

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Our second Wilson is Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), the father of American ornithology, famed for his influential publication American Ornithology, (Philadelphia, 1808-1814). Perhaps now lesser known than The Birds of America, this work actually predates Audubon by some years. It was the first bird book with coloured plates to be published in America, and was the most comprehensive and accurate to date.

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Alexander Wilson was born on 6 July 1766 in Paisley.  As a young teenager he was apprenticed for five years to learn the trade of weaving. Once finished he began to peddle around the countryside, and it was during this period that Wilson was inspired to write poetry. 

Gordon Wilson asserts that the value of Wilson’s poetry lies in its documentation of “low” Scottish life, most notably the struggles within the family or between capital and labour.  Wilson attempted to publish his poems several times, finally succeeding in 1790 with Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious.

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However, by 1793 forces were moving Wilson towards leaving Scotland.  Satirical poems heavily influenced by the tenets of the American and French Revolutions were allegedly used to incite discontent among the local weavers. For his part in this, Wilson was forced to burn the satire at the crossroads of Paisley, as well as spend a short time in the local jail.  Thus, his An Address to the Synod of G*****w and A*r   ‘on Their late Meeting for the purpose of preparing an humble and grateful Address to a Great Personage, for his Royal Proclamation against certain Publications,’ was published under the pseudonym Lawrie Nettle.

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Wilson arrived in Delaware on 14 July 1794.  His first years in America were a struggle; however, he soon found work as a schoolteacher in Milestown, Pennsylvania.  Already interested in birds, he read the ornithological works of Catesby and Edwards in the library of his neighbour, the naturalist William Bartram.  Aware of their shortcomings, Wilson resolved to supplement them, and with Bartram’s encouragement, he began to collect specimens and make detailed observations.

The first volume of Wilson’s American ornithology appeared in 1808.  The accompanying text is written in a clear, natural style, presenting Wilson’s own experiences with the birds and their characteristics as he saw them. Wilson saw his publication as a deeply American venture, an act of patriotism that asserted the greatness and scope of his new country’s resources.

Seven volumes had been published by 1813, and the eighth was in the press, when Wilson died after a bout of dysentery.  All eight volumes are available for consultation in Special Collections (Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.2.11-19) along with a selection of his published poetry.  The bicentenary of Wilson’s death will be marked by the University of Glasgow with a seminar on June 14th, and exhibition in the University’s Zoology Museum, which will run from June to September 2013.

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  1. Vox Populi – The Referendum of 1997 « University of Glasgow Library

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