James Wilson’s law lecture series was not the nation’s first law course. It was, however, the first significant law course to be established in America since the Constitution was ratified, and the series had the distinction of being held in the nation’s new, albeit temporary, capital.
When College of Philadelphia trustees were asked in 1790 to consider including law in the curriculum, James Wilson, one of America’s associate justices to the Supreme Court, was on the committee appointed to consider the possibility. It was likely he who submitted a broad proposal to the group—a series of lectures that covered constitutional law, international law, common law, civil law, maritime law, and the law merchant. The plan was approved and Judge Wilson was elected to give the lectures, thus establishing Philadelphia’s first law school.
Wilson believed the study of law was a science founded in principle, not a trade dependent merely on precedent.1 He began his professorship with an introductory lecture before the public on December 15, 1790. The Pennsylvania Gazette advertised the event for weeks:
LAW LECTURES. College of Philadelphia, Wednesday, Dec. 15, 1790.
The Honorable Judge Wilson’s Introductory Lecture will be delivered this Evening, at 6 o’Clock, in the College Hall; after which there will be a Commencement for conferring Degrees in Medicine. Those Citizens who have received Tickets of Admission from Mr. Wilson are requested to take their Seats in the Gallery, it being necessary to appropriate the lower Part of the HALL to the Accommodation of Congress and other Public Bodies, who are invited. 2
Wilson’s subsequent lectures were scheduled on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday that winter. On Saturdays his students participated in mock courts and mock legislative sessions. In April, with the approach of the spring circuits, Judge Wilson was forced to give up the lectures in order to resume his judicial duties. The demands of the Supreme Court, as well as the demands of Wilson’s own precarious business ventures, were such that Wilson terminated the lectures in the following term.
Beyond a printed pamphlet of the introductory lecture, Wilson never followed through on his plans to publish the series. That task was left to his son, Bird Wilson. Working from James Wilson’s sixty some notebooks, Bird published the first edition in 1804.
Given James Wilson’s firsthand insights into the founding era, Wilson scholars have had a keen interest in knowing the extent of Bird’s editing changes. In his biography of James Wilson, Page Smith mentions reviewing these notebooks and states that they were in the possession of James Alan Montgomery, Jr. of Philadelphia.3
It was almost fifty years before the notebooks surfaced again. In 2001, after a fruitless search on his own, scholar Mark David Hall tracked the missing notebooks to the Free Library of Philadelphia with the aid of an attorney who uncovered Montgomery’s will. 4
Interestingly, Mr. Hall found evidence in two sentences of Wilson’s final draft that reveal James Wilson did indeed finish the lectures he’d planned, and that he had not abandoned the project as is frequently supposed. Hall noted that, “It is the case that Wilson did not deliver them all, and they certainly become sketchy toward the end of the lecture series, but these sentences indicate that Wilson had, in fact, covered the ground that he intended to cover in his lectures.” 5
The December 15th lecture was quite the occasion. It was attended by the President, Vice-President, members of Congress, members of the state senate and house, and local dignitaries in the community—in short, by everybody who was anybody.
Liam Brock, one of the characters in the Voices series, had admired James Wilson from the time he first heard Wilson deliver his rousing speech calling for the ratification of the Constitution in October 1787.
In Voices Whisper, this introductory lecture offered Liam another opportunity to listen to his hero espouse his views on the future of American law.
1. Hall, Mark David, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol 128, no. 1 (Jan 2004), pp 63-76, 64
2. Pennsylvania Gazette, December 15, 1790.
3. Smith, Charles Page, James Wilson Founding Father, 1742-1798, Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 1956, 408
4. David Mark Hall learned that James Montgomery had donated the notebooks in 1968 and 1969. The Free Library of Philadelphia issued a press release in 1969 about the donation, however the notebooks were never included in the National Union Catalog or any other listing. Hall, Collected Works of James Wilson, Volume I, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2007, 405
5. Hall, “James Wilson’s Law Lectures,” 70