James Wilson

One question I’ve been asked is whether I’ll write another biography and, if so, about whom.  I’m not sure, but I do have some ground rules that are helpful for anyone considering this kind of project.

1.  Never write about a living person.

This is true for several reasons.  First, it’s a story without an ending.  Second, the person can do a lot to control or influence the book. Third, other people are far less likely to tell you the truth about the subject.  Fourth, lots of relevant documents will be unavailable.

2.  Don’t write about someone who is famous only as a judge.

Judges are generally boring people, though there is the occasional exception who has a colorful personal life (Justice William O. Douglas). If a judge had an lively political or professional career before going to the bench (Earl Warren, for example), then that can work, but a book that just moves from one opinion to another is tough sledding.

3.  Find someone about whom no book has been written in decades

If you want to make money, writing another book about Lincoln or Washington is fine.  To make a scholarly contribution, though, you need to say something new.  That can be done about an old subject because new documents or new insights come with every generation. Thus, the fact that a book was written about X fifty years ago does not preclude writing another book now.

4.  They have to be important enough (or fascinating enough) to justify a couple of years of your working life.

My leading candidate–and I’m starting to think hard about this–is James Wilson. Wilson was born in Scotland and emigrated to the United States in the 1760s. He wrote one of the first sophisticated pamphlets challenging parliamentary supremacy over the colonies, signed the Declaration of Independence, was one of the most influential members of the Constitutional Convention, and served as one the first Supreme Court Justices.  He is largely unknown because he died on the run from creditors after making a series of bad investments in land.  The last full biography of him was written in the 1950s, so this might be a good time to do one.  Plus, there’s always room for another Founding Father book.

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8 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    Looked at “Courtwatchers: Eyewitness Accounts in Supreme Court History” recently and Wilson was discussed, including how he courted a young woman while riding circuit.

    A lot of stuff both personal and legal to mine there.

  2. wb says:

    Dorsen’s Judge Friendly biography is excellent, but the foreword from Judge Posner explains why no. 2 is exactly right 99% of the time.

  3. dave hoffman says:

    I dunno. Gunther’s Learned Hand biography was incredibly interesting & in parts quite moving. Probably because he was interesting as a person – not exactly for what he did, but how he thought about the world.

  4. Gerard Magliocca says:

    I agree that the Learned Hand book is the best judicial biography, but it took Gunther decades to write. I’m not sure that was the best use of his time.

  5. Carlton Larson says:

    I’ve thought about doing this too. One major problem is that almost all of Wilson’s papers have been lost because of the chaotic circumstances of his final years. The Smith biography from the 50s is highly unreliable in the areas with which I am most familiar. Bill Ewald at Penn has done some very good papers on Wilson and is working on a biography.

  6. Joe says:

    The book “Seriatim: The Supreme Court Before John Marshall” has a chapter on him as well with numerous helpful notes.

  7. Spencer Waller says:

    #4 was most important to me when I started my biography of Thurman Arnold and why I haven’t tackled another similar project since. Interesting is probably even more important than important for this purpose.

  8. Chris Robinette says:

    John Witt covered Wilson in the first section of Patriots and Cosmopolitans (HUP 2007).