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James Wilson on the purpose of government and the Constitution

April 23, 2007

Tags U.S. HistoryPolitical Theory

James Wilson (9/4/1742–8/28/1798) was one of the most important of America's founding fathers, but is now one of the least known. He was one of only a half-dozen who signed both the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution, but his influence was felt both before and after those seminal documents, as well.

Before the Declaration of Independence, Wilson's Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament was published in 1774. He argued that Parliament had no authority to legislate for the colonies. It was widely read, including by those at the Continental Congress, to which he was then elected in 1775. There, he was an influential voice arguing for complete separation from England. But Pennsylvania, which he represented, was divided on independence, and he would not vote against their desires, so only after arranging a delay to consult with his constituents would he vote for independence.

Wilson was a member of the Committee on Detail, which produced the first draft of the Constitution. He also argued forcefully for ratification of the final version in Pennsylvania, which approved it only after Delaware. In fact, his Ratification Speech before the Pennsylvania Legislature on October 6, 1787, was so widely reprinted that it received more coverage than The Federalist Papers.

James Wilson was appointed a member of the first Supreme Court by George Washington in 1789. In addition, particularly in a set of law lectures beginning in 1790, he became one of the first American legal philosophers, spelling out some of the thinking behind the Supreme Court's early decisions, because "Why should we not teach our children those principles upon which we ourselves have thought and acted?"

What may be most striking about James Wilson is his understanding that the purpose of government is to secure the rights of its members and that the purpose of the Constitution was to create such a government. Americans would benefit from remembering those ideas, which seem all but lost today. As an example, consider just a few of his words:

Government Exists to Secure Members' Rights

"The defense of one's self, justly called the primary law of nature, is not, nor can it be, abrogated by any regulation…"

"All men are by nature equal and free. No one has a right to any authority over another without his consent … "

"Government … should be formed to secure and enlarge the exercise of the natural rights of its members; and every government which has not this in view as its principal object is not a government of the legitimate kind."

"Civil liberty is natural liberty itself, divested only of that part, which, placed in the government, produces more good and happiness to the community than if it had remained in the individual."

"In the enjoyment of their persons and of their property, the common law protects all."

"In a government whose maxims are those of oppression, property is insecure."

" … can the mind of a man be serene, when the property, liberty and subsistence of himself…depends on a tyrant's nod?"

" … in a regulated society…The liberty of every member is increased…for each gains more by the limitation of the freedom of every other member, than he loses by the limitation of his own. The result is that civil government is necessary to the perfection and happiness of man."

" … without a good government, liberty cannot exist."

"Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness."

"The citizens of the United States…[are] best pleased with that system of government which would best promote their freedom and happiness."

" … in this government, liberty shall reign triumphant."

The Constitution's Role

"A good constitution is the greatest blessing which a society can enjoy."

"Governments, in general, have been the result of force, of fraud, and of accident … the United States exhibit to the world the first instance…of a nation…assembling voluntarily, deliberating fully, and deciding calmly, concerning that system of government, under which they would wish that they and their posterity should live."

"I view the states as made for the People, as well as by them, and not the People as made for the states … "

"The greatest part of governments have been the deformed offspring of force and fear … under this constitution, we hope to see just government, and to enjoy the blessings that walk in its train."

" … this Constitution … though it is not so perfect as I would wish, yet it is more perfect than any other government that I know."

"…my admiration can only be equaled by my astonishment in beholding so perfect a system [the Constitution] formed from such heterogeneous materials."

"[The Constitution] is the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world."

"…citizens of America…secure their rights…from being injured by the general government."

" … private property and personal liberty, so far as it is not forfeited by crimes, will be guarded with firmness and watchfulness."

"…the people never part with their power … what part of this system puts it in the power of Congress to attack those rights?"

" … among the virtues necessary to merit and preserve the advantages of good government, I number a warm and uniform ATTACHMENT to LIBERTY, and to the CONSTITUTION."

" … public happiness, personal liberty, and private property depend essentially upon the able and upright determinations of upright judges."

"The enemies of liberty are artful and insidious … liberty herself is treated as a traitor and an usurper … Against these enemies of liberty, who act in concert … the patriot citizen will keep a watchful guard."

James Wilson has been called "one of the great American statesmen." It is worth reading his work to discover why. But it is more important to do because it can help us rediscover what was truly revolutionary about America's experiment in liberty, at a time when most of what government does today is to restrict liberty rather than defend it.

The 1804 version of Works of James Wilson is online at http://www.constitution.org/jwilson/jwilson.htm, and a new printed Collected Works of James Wilson is due out this August from Liberty Fund.

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