Wilson won election to the Continental Congress in 1775. He was learned and hardworking, and his law practice flourished. He won Pennsylvania's land dispute with Connecticut and represented the king of France in America. He helped organize the Bank of North America in 1781, then defended the bank against populist attacks. As a member of the Confederation Congress in the 1780s, he unsuccessfully tried to strengthen its power to tax and command state militias. With Washington and some other delegates, he shared a weakness -- more like a fever in Wilson's case -- for speculation in frontier lands. For Wilson, the fever would prove fatal.
Tall, well dressed, and solidly built, his auburn hair fashionably powdered, Wilson radiated a lowering intensity while inspiring little affection. Speaking often in favor of a stronger central government, he led (in the words of one delegate) "not by the charm of his eloquence, but by the force of his reasoning." His accent and formal deportment brought him the mocking nickname "James de Caledonia." One lawyer described Wilson's voice as "powerful, though not melodious; his cadences judiciously though somewhat artificially regulated," while "his manner was rather imposing than persuasive."
An early biographer recorded that his features "were far from disagreeable; and they sometimes bore the appearance of sternness, owing to his extreme nearness of sight." He peered through thick spectacles, one contemporary noted, "like a surveyor through a compass." Another said the Scot's "lofty carriage" was adopted to prevent his eyewear from sliding off his nose.
No one questioned Wilson's toughness. In 1778, he tenaciously defended two Quakers against charges of complicity with the British. The lingering effects of that controversy, along with his opposition to price controls, made him a target of militiamen disgruntled over the sacrifices they made while others profiteered. Rather than flee from a militia parade in 1779, Wilson and some allies barricaded themselves in his house. From what became known as "Fort Wilson," they engaged in a musket battle -- indeed, some think the gentlemen inside the house started the shooting -- that cost the lives of four soldiers and two of Fort Wilson's defenders.
Where Wilson was determined and disciplined, Gouverneur Morris (no relation to Robert Morris) was all flamboyance and talent. Called "Tall Boy" by some, Morris at thirty-five rivaled Washington in height and bearing, and was valued by hostesses as a bachelor and a charming raconteur. A female admirer reported that during a three-day wedding party, Morris "kept us in a continual smile (I dare not say laughter for all the world but you may admit it in the back room)." Happy to share his opinions on any subject, Morris suffered fools not at all. A Frenchman in 1782 found Morris "to possess the most spirit and nerve amongst those I met at Philadelphia," but predicted "that his superiority, which he has taken no pains to conceal, will prevent his ever occupying an important place."
Morris's magnetic presence was made more dramatic by the oaken peg leg below his left knee. Seven years earlier, he had lost the lower part of the leg in a carriage accident just a few blocks from the State House. Owing to his rakish reputation, many assumed the injury occurred in flight from a jealous husband. Contemporaries suggested that the loss in no way reduced his appeal to women.
Morris's ebullience permeates the tale (possibly apocryphal) of his assurance to Hamilton that the great Washington was not so austere as often thought. Hamilton, the story goes, proposed that Morris prove his point by delivering a matey slap to the General's back at an impending social occasion. Morris duly administered the casual greeting, which moved the General's customary reserve from cool to arctic, to Hamilton's delight and Morris's instant dismay.
Copyright © 2007 by David O. Stewart
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