James Wilson was a
Republican congressman and senator from Iowa. In December 1863,
he introduced a bill into the U.S. House of Representatives for
a constitutional amendment to ban slavery in the entire United
States. It was an essential part of the foundation for what
became the Thirteenth Amendment (ratified in December 1865).
James Wilson was born in Newark, Ohio, on
October 19, 1828, to Kitty Ann Bramble Wilson and Davis S.
Wilson, a carpenter. After the death of his father, young
Wilson worked as an apprentice harness-maker to his uncle and
attended school intermittently. He read law and was admitted to
the state bar in 1851. The next year, he married Mary Jewett;
they later had three children. In 1853, the Wilsons moved to
Fairfield, Iowa, where he practiced law.
In 1854, passage of the
Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the Western territories to slavery,
prodded Wilson to act as one of the founders of the Republican
Party in Iowa. In 1857, he was a delegate to the state
constitutional convention and was elected to the Iowa General
Assembly. Two years later, he won a seat in the Iowa State
Senate. In 1860, he was a delegate to the Republican National
Convention, where he supported the successful presidential
candidacy of Abraham Lincoln. In early 1861, Wilson was elected
president of the state senate, but resigned that October after
winning a special election to fill a congressional vacancy. He
became a member and later chairman (1863-1869) of the
influential House Judiciary Committee.
During the Civil War, Wilson strongly
supported the Union war effort and advocated emancipation
measures for the District of Columbia and the Western
territories (both passed in 1862). In December 1863, he became
the second House member to introduce a bill for a constitutional
amendment to abolish slavery in the entire United States. It
formed an essential element in the drafting of the Thirteenth
Amendment, which the House passed in January 1865 and the states
ratified in December 1865. He also endorsed citizenship, voting
rights, and other civil rights for blacks.
After the war, Wilson supported
congressional Reconstruction over President Andrew Johnsonís
more lenient policies. The Iowan initially opposed
impeaching the president until Johnson removed Secretary of
War Edwin Stanton (who was cooperating with Congress on
Reconstruction) in violation of the
Tenure of Office Act. After the House impeached Johnson in February 1868,
Wilson served as one of the House managers (prosecutors) at the
presidentís trial in the Senate. The Senate failed to convict
Johnson by one vote, so he completed the presidential term.
Wilson decided not to run for reelection to Congress in 1868.
The next year, he declined President Ulysses S. Grantís offer to
become secretary of state, but accepted a position as a
representative of the federal government on the board of
directors of the Union Pacific Railroad. He invested money in
Credit Mobilier, the holding company of the Union Pacific, but
no evidence linked him to the subsequent
involving bribes from the Credit Mobilier managers to
In 1882, Wilson emerged from political
retirement to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, and was reelected
six years later. In the Senate, he helped draft the Interstate
Commerce Act of 1887, which created the first federal regulatory
agency (the Interstate Commerce Commission), and supported high
tariffs, bimetallism, and federal supervision of elections (to
help protect black voting rights in the South). He also
endorsed prohibition laws for Iowa. Wilson decided not to seek
reelection in 1894, but retired at the end of his second term in
early March 1895. He returned to Fairfield, Iowa, where he died
six weeks later on April 22, 1895.