Without the confidence of the people, no government, least of all a republican government, can long subsist.
--James Wilson, speech made during the Constitutional Convention, 1787
Owned by one of the founding fathers and retaining its original upholstery underpinnings, this side chair is an important survival of both the political milieu and the upholsterer's craft in late-eighteenth century Philadelphia.
JAMES WILSON (1742-1798)
One of only six individuals to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, James Wilson played a crucial role in the formation of the New Republic. Born in Scotland and educated at St. Andrew's, Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, he emigrated to New York in 1765. The next year, he moved to Pennsylvania where he established a law practice in Reading and Carlisle and began his career as an ardent politician. A member of the Provincial Convention of Pennyslvania in 1774, he was one of the first to argue that the British Parliament did not have authority over the Colonies and at the Second Continental Congress, one of the earliest Pennsylvania delegates to vote for independence. His political prominence, legal skills and successful commercial enterprises soon made him one of Philadelphia's elite and during the 1779 food-shortage riots, one of the objects of attack. Fearing the violence of a mob, he barricaded himself with a number of his friends, including members of the Morris, Burd, Mifflin and Campbell families, inside his Walnut Street house, thereafter known as "Fort Wilson." Nevertheless, his career prospered in the early 1780s and he served as avocat general for the French Government and as legal advisor to Robert Morris in the establishment of the Bank of Philadelphia.
Wilson's greatest achievement was his active role in the formation of the Constitution. Considered one of the most advanced thinkers at the Convention, he consistently argued for the sovreignty of the people over that of the states. He was a member of the Committee of Detail and his own draft of the Constitution survives in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. His efforts during the Convention were rewarded when, in 1789, Washington appointed him one of the first six Supreme Court Justices. He also became the first law professor in the country and the President was amongst the guests at his opening lecture. Throughout his life, he wrote many political essays, which were complied and published posthumously by his son, the Reverand Bird Wilson (1777-1859) in 1803-1804 (see Simpson, The Lives of Eminent Philadelphians (Philadelphia, 1859), pp. 964-968; Dictionary of American Biography, vol. X (New York, 1936), pp. 326-330).
While a lawyer for Pennsylvania-German farmers in Reading, Wilson met his wife, Rachel Bird (1750-1786) and the couple married in Carlisle in 1770. The chair could have been part of their furnishings in Carlisle, but may have been purchased upon their arrival in Philadelphia in 1778. With Rachel Bird, Wilson had six children and after her early death, married Hannah Gray of Boston in 1793. After a series of business failures in the 1790s, Wilson accrued substantial debt and died in 1798 during a visit to his fellow Justice James Iredell in North Carolina. His will does not mention household goods, but leaves property to two of his daughters, Ann and Mary Jane.
The chair appears to have descended in Carlisle families during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Probably part of an original set of eight, the chair is marked VII on its rear seat rail and at least four other chairs from the same set are known. When sold in 1982, this chair and a second example were noted to have descended in the Hager-McKnight families of Lancaster and Carlisle. Another pair of chairs were owned by William Miller Henderson of Carlisle in the early nineteenth century. Though no direct links to the Wilson family can be made, genealogical records indicate that the two William M. Hendersons living in Carlisle at the time had ties to James Wilson and the Hager-McKnight families. The father of one was named "James Wilson Henderson," and the sister of the other, Elizabeth Parker (b. 1862) married H. C. McKnight. Marked IV, a fifth chair sold at auction in 1992 (see Sack, Opportunities in American Art, vol. 3, pp. 794-795 and vol. 5, p. 1557; Sotheby's New York, October 23, 1982, lot 170 and June 19, 1992, lot 381; History of Cumberland and Adams Counties, Pennsylvania (Chicago, 1886), pp. 379-380).
During the chair's examination and minor restoration at Winterthur Museum, it was discovered that it retained much of its original upholstery foundations, including tacks, curled horsehair and traces of red wool fibers that may have indicate its first upholstery scheme. The chair marked IV, mentioned above, retained similar foundations and together, these chairs document the upholstery practices of English-trained craftsmen in early Philadelphia (see figs. 2 and 3).