Supreme Court Reforms? Ask America’s First Homegrown Legal Philosopher
President Biden has just appointed a commission to study Supreme Court reform. However, I noticed that no one seems to be talking about reform to mean “re-form to better reflect the Constitution than under current precedents and interpretation,” reflected in the notable paucity of defenders of the Constitution as understood at the time it was adopted. That is why the commission could use some guidance from James Wilson for insight.
James Wilson signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Earlier, his Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament argued that it had no authority to legislate for the colonies. At the Continental Congress, he 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. In fact, his October 6, 1787, ratification speech before the Pennsylvania legislature received more coverage than The Federalist.
George Washington appointed Wilson to the first Supreme Court in 1789. Then, in a set of law lectures beginning in 1790, he became America’s first homegrown legal philosopher, spelling out the thinking behind the Constitution and early Supreme Court decisions. He articulated the purpose of government as to secure citizens’ preexisting rights and that the Constitution was crafted to create such a government. Remembering those ideas, now seriously compromised and threatened with further erosion, would be a reform actually likely to benefit Americans.
Wilson clarified our founders’ understanding of law: “The defense of one’s self, justly called the primary law of nature, is not, nor can it be, abrogated by any regulation.” What does each individual’s self-ownership, and right of self-defense that derives from it, mean for government? “All men are by nature equal and free. No one has a right to any authority over another without his consent.”
Wilson spelled out the implications of government consistent with that understanding of law: “The liberty of every member is increased … 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.” In consequence, 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.”
Since all must be better protected to expand everyone’s rights and liberties, law had to treat everyone equally. “In the enjoyment of their persons and of their property, the common law protects all.” No one’s liberty could be invaded; no one’s property could be violated. Instead, “private property and personal liberty … will be guarded with firmness and watchfulness.” This is what led America’s founders to agree with Wilson that “without a good government, liberty cannot exist.”
Because good government was considered central to liberty, “A good constitution is the greatest blessing which a society can enjoy.” And because “in this government, liberty shall reign triumphant,” Americans were bequeathed “that system of government which would best promote their freedom and happiness.”
Because some would override our free choices with their dictates, an important consequence follows: “Among the virtues necessary to merit and preserve the advantages of good government [are] a warm and uniform attachment to liberty and to the Constitution,” because “enemies of liberty are artful and insidious…. Against these enemies … the patriot citizen will keep a watchful guard.”
James Wilson was a great American statesman whose words reveal what was truly revolutionary about our experiment in liberty. His discussion of “those principles upon which we ourselves have thought and acted,” which echoed John Locke’s recognition that just government exists for the good of its people, not the other way around, is worth relearning. And just as for other Americans, the Supreme Court Reform Commission would benefit from proposals that recognize, with Wilson, that “without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression,” because our liberties have grown far scarcer than the Constitution was designed to provide.