Who is James Wilson?

James Wilson (1742-98), an émigré from Scotland, became one of the premier minds and leading figures of the American Founding.   He would settle eventually in Philadelphia, but he brought with him an education shaped at the Universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh.  Steeped in the commonsense philosophy of one of the most luminous teachers of the time, Thomas Reid, Wilson brought part of the Scottish Enlightenment to America.  He played a critical part throughout the deliberations in Philadelphia that brought forth the Constitution; indeed, he was one of the few men who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  He would go on to become a central figure in the Ratifying Convention in Pennsylvania,  and he would be appointed by George Washington to the first Supreme Court.   While Wilson was on the Court he delivered an elegant series of lectures on jurisprudence at the University of Pennsylvania, lectures drawing on sources ancient and modern.  Those lectures gave us an account of the American law, and the American Founding, that take us to the philosophic and moral roots of jurisprudence.  Threads of that teaching have run through the writings of Hadley Arkes and other scholars who will be involved in the ongoing work of the James Wilson Institute.  Among Wilson’s contemporaries,  Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall shared with him that capacity to trace their judgments back to those deep axioms or principles of law—the principles that were there before the Constitution;  the principles that would be necessary to any “regime of law.”


Wilson famously said that the purpose of this new Constitution was not to invent new rights but to secure and enlarge those rights we already had by nature.  The doctrines of natural right law could not be separated from the work of Wilson and the American founders as they shaped a new regime and, later, a Constitution.    That regime suffered its severest test during our crisis of "the house divided," and it required nothing less than the art of Lincoln to restate those teachings of natural right in a manner even more compelling. The teachings of Wilson, Hamilton, Marshall, Lincoln are still there to be read and taught anew.

 

Further reading

James Wilson's Published Works, courtesy of the Online Library of Liberty, a project of the Liberty Fund

The Lost Founder: James Wilson in American Memory