Historical Markers
James Wilson Historical Marker
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James Wilson

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
SW corner, High and Pitt Streets, Carlisle

Dedication Date:
October 20, 1949

Behind the Marker

The American Revolution was hard on the Pennsylvania economy, for the British restricted imports and blocked the exports that the state and continental governments depended upon for funding. Soon after the outbreak of hostilities, war profiteering by ambitious businessmen became a serious problem. Merchants charged both civilians and the military whatever the market would bear, inflating prices on everything from farm produce to clothing, to the weapons and munitions needed to win the war.

To combat this problem and the vicious cycle of currency depreciation caused by states printing their own paper money, the Pennsylvania militias and Continental Army fixed prices that farmers and merchants were forced to accept. Both the Congress and the states had to raise the money necessary to wage war.
Oil on canvas portrait of James Wilson. Wilson is in formally dressed and seated. He has a receding hairline, gray hair, and is wearing spectacles.
Associate Justice James Wilson, by Robert S. Susan, after Leopold G. Seyffert,...

Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power of taxation, so to finance the war it had to request money from the states, which ignored congressional resolutions and refused to supply their allotted contributions. Instead, Congress sought to finance the war through grants and loans from foreign allies, and by issuing paper currency.

Choosing the dollar as its unit of value rather than the British pound, Congress called on the states to raise taxes, payable in Continental dollars, in order to create a standard form of currency. But most states were unwilling to do this and resorted instead to printing their own currency.

While the total foreign subsidy approached $9 million, it was not sufficient to back the circulating Continental currency, whose face value was nearly $200 million by the end of the war. Worse, the various currencies issued by other states totaled another $200 million by war's end. The results of this unchecked growth in the money supply included a rapid depreciation in Continental currency and runaway inflation.

Continental soldiers, merchants, landlords and other creditors - people who received fixed incomes for their services - were devastated by the problem, which became the focus in the political struggles between the radicals and conservatives who vied for control of the state government. To check price inflation and currency depreciation, the Philadelphia militia, in May 1779, ordered that food prices in the city be fixed. Soldiers searched warehouses, arrested suspected Tories, and accused some of the city's merchants of "getting rich by sucking the blood" of their fellow citizens. One of these merchants was James Wilson, a former Pennsylvania representative to Congress.
Watercolor of Fort Wilson - General View.
Fort Wilson

Born in 1741 or 1742, in Scotland, Wilson had immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1765, briefly taught Latin at the College of Philadelphia, and then studied law under markerJohn Dickinson. In 1768 he set up a law practice in markerReading, and two years later moved to Carlisle where he married, speculated in land, and built a successful practice in land law. There, too, he became involved in Revolutionary politics. In 1774 Wilson became chairman of the Carlisle committee of correspondence. The following year he was elected to both the provincial assembly and the Second Continental Congress.

In 1776, Wilson voted for American independence, but later led the opposition to Pennsylvania's new, liberal constitution. His fellow delegates, believing that he had abandoned the patriot cause for a more conservative approach, forced his removal from Congress the following year. Wilson remained in Philadelphia, where he circulated among conservative republican groups and increased his business interests as well as his land speculation.

On October 4, 1779, a mob, consisting of militiamen and radical Constitutionalists, marched on Wilson's home at Third and Walnut Streets. Barricading himself in the house with thirty-five supporters, Wilson prepared for a skirmish. One of the radicals, Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale, made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the mob to disperse. But they pushed by him to break down the doors of "Fort Wilson." Shortly after, a cannon was brought up and shots rang out. When the dust cleared marker seven men lay dead and between fourteen and seventeen were wounded.

In the 1780s, Wilson served as a conservative member of Congress and as a director for the Bank of North America. In 1787 he played a leading role in framing the United States Constitution. His mastery of political theory enabled him to convince the delegates to the 1787 federal convention that the fountain of political authority in the new United States was, indeed, the common people. This theory of popular sovereignty reinforced the individual liberties and limited government that was institutionalized by the creation of a Bill of Rights as well as by the implementation of a bicameral national legislature in which the lower house was elected directly by the people. Afterwards, Wilson led the drive for ratification in Pennsylvania and was rewarded for his efforts by President George Washington, who appointed him an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

In the 1790s, Wilson's career was marred by the difficulty he had reconciling a strong personal drive for wealth and power with public service. He made large speculative investments in land in western New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, and attempted to import large numbers of Europeans to settle in the west. To avoid prosecution for debt he in 1797 fled from Philadelphia to Burlington, New Jersey. While on federal circuit court business in North Carolina he fell ill and died on August 21, 1798.
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