Wilson, James (1742–1798)

AuthorRalph A. Rossum

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James Wilson was one of the most influential members of the founding generation. He was born in Scotland and educated as a classical scholar at the University of St. Andrews. He immigrated to America in 1765, whereupon he

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served as a tutor at the College of Philadelphia while he studied law with the celebrated JOHN DICKINSON. His keen and perceptive mind, superb classical education, and excellent legal training prepared him to play a major role in the creation of the new American republic. He was a frequent delegate from Pennsylvania to the Second CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, one of six men who signed both the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE and the Constitution, and second only to JAMES MADISON in his contribution to the deliberations of the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. He produced what was probably the most widely distributed and discussed defense of the new Constitution in his State-house Speech of October 6, 1787. He was the principal figure in the efforts to secure RATIFICATION OF THE CONSTITUTION by Pennsylvania, whose approval was indispensable to the success of the whole constitutional movement. He was a major architect of the significant Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790. He was one of the six original Justices of the United States Supreme Court. He was the first professor of law appointed after the founding of the new republic, and he was the only Framer to formulate a general theory of government and law?this in his lectures on law, delivered in 1791?1792 at what would later become the University of Pennsylvania.

Wilson was and remains influential, however, not so much because of the roles he played as for the ideas he articulated, the arguments he made, and the institutional arrangements he favored. Among the principal Framers, Wilson was the most committed to, and trusting of, unmitigated majoritarian democracy. He favored the simplicity of immediate consent and self-restraint to the complexity of procedural protections and constitutional contrivances. Relying heavily on the Scottish moralists (especially Thomas Reid), Wilson argued that men are naturally social; imbued with a sense of goodness, veracity, and benevolence; and possessed of a progressive intuitive sense that can be improved with practice so as to carry society "above any limits which we can now assign." As a consequence, he trusted them to elect leaders who would govern soberly and well, especially over a large and "comprehensive Federal Republic" such as the United States. He saw no need to protect the people from themselves. Madison's "republican remed[ies] for the diseases most incident to republican government" were, he believed, unnecessary. The government would be good to the extent that its branches were prompted, through their competition with one another, to serve the people and to reflect faithfully their wishes. Wilson brought this view of government and his commitment to majoritarianism to the Federal Convention, where his influence was...

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