"How is it that I, poor ignorant I," John Adams asked late in his life, "must stand before Posterity as differing from all the other great men of the age?" This concern-over securing one's distinct spot in history-was widely and deeply felt among the key Founders of the Republic. "To have honor across space and time," Gordon Wood has written, "was to have fame, and fame, "the ruling passion of the noblest minds," was what most of the founding fathers were after." The fame they sought, unlike the fame we think of when we say the word today, was to be found in the future rather than the present fame not so much among adoring fans as in the history books. Each of the elite set of key architects of America pursued this kind of fame, and each of them got it.
Each, that is, but one. Imagine that there exists a Founding Father - call him Founder X-whose contribution to the framing of the nation was of comparable significance to that of many famous founding-era Americans - men like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall. Only, unlike these other figures, whose names have always permeated American history texts, Founder X has languished, and overwhelmingly continues to languish, in obscurity. Unless you are a law professor, American historian, or an especially attentive student of either, you have probably never heard of him. In his day, however, Founder X was a famous and noteworthy man. In a pamphlet written but left unpublished in 1768, Founder X, long before others were doing so, and at the young age of twenty-six, spelled out the basic argument for separation from England that Whig patriots would later employ in moving for independence. After reading it, Thomas Jefferson copied passages of Founder X's pamphlet in his commonplace book-passages that bear a distinct resemblance to some of the key language in the Declaration of Independence. In the ensuing decade, as the Revolutionary war drew to a close and the new nation took shape, Founder X grew to be recognized as the best lawyer in the country. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Founder X, whose opinions carried immense weight in the conclave, gave more speeches than Madison - and indeed than anyone, save his notoriously long-winded fellow Pennsylvanian Gouverneur Morris. Among the top historians of the Convention, there is little dispute that, if Founder X was second to anyone in his importance at the Convention, he was second only to Madison.
"The Lost Founder: James Wilson in American Memory,"
Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities: Vol. 22
, Article 3.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol22/iss2/3