Wilson, James (1742–1798)

views updated

WILSON, JAMES (1742–1798)

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 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 clearly felt. He contributed significantly to the Convention's understanding of separation of powers, figured prominently in determining the institutional arrangements and powers of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and helped to make federalism possible with his arguments concerning the dual sovereignty of the people.

Wilson contributed to the Convention's understanding of separation of powers by arguing that it properly consists not of functionally separated branches but of coordinate and equal branches that perform a blend of functions in order to balance, not separate, powers. As he declared, "The separation of the departments does not require that they should have separate objects but that they should act separately tho' on the same objects." Wilson was aware that the various governmental branches, even though popularly elected, would occasionally be activated by "an official sentiment opposed to that of the General Government and perhaps to that of the people themselves." On those occasions, separation of powers would be necessary to insure the fidelity of these popular agents. Wilson also contributed to the Convention's understanding by stressing that separation of powers not only prevents governmental tyranny but also contributes to governmental efficiency. Aware that the democratic process of mutual deliberation and consent can paralyze government when swift and decisive action is necessary, he argued that government would be more efficient if its different functions were performed by separate and distinct agencies.

Wilson's influence on the legislative branch was felt primarily in the house of representatives and in his promotion of reflective, as opposed to refining, representation. He argued in the Convention that "the Government ought to possess not only first, the force but secondly, the mind or sense of the people at large. The Legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole Society." Wilson regarded representation as a "chain of communication" between the people and those to whom they have delegated the powers of government. Its purpose is not to "refine" the people's sentiments; rather, it is to communicate through links "sound and strong" the exact feelings of the people. Strong as this chain might be, however, Wilson was unwilling to trust it completely. So long as the legislature was perfectly reflective of the people, no problem was presented; however, there was no way to ensure this. On occasion, the legislature might come to possess and perceive an interest distinct from, and perhaps contrary to, the public at large. On that occasion, a single legislature would be dangerous, and thus Wilson argued for a divided legislature with a numerous House of Representatives, so close in political style and feelings to those it represented that it would constitute their "exact transcript," and a popularly elected Senate organized around the principle of proportional representation, thereby providing a "double representation" for the people. Wilson was one of the first to argue that it is possible for the people, simply through the electoral process, to have two different agents or representatives speaking for them at the same time. He did not fear that this common election would erode the material distinctions, and consequently the benefits that resulted from these material distinctions, between the two branches of the legislature. He trusted in the development of a "point of honor" between the two branches: they would "be rivals in duty, rivals in fame, rivals for the good graces of their common constituents." His views on the Senate, though unsuccessful at the Convention, were largely vindicated with the passage of the seventeenth amendment.

Wilson's contributions to the shape and powers of the executive branch were perhaps most significant of all. He was the first delegate to propose "that the Executive consist of a single person." He argued that the executive, no less than the legislature, needed to be restrained and controlled. But, "in order to control the legislative authority, you must divide it. In order to control the Executive, you must unite it." The advantage of clear-cut responsibility would reinforce and assure those other "very important advantages" that are also obtained from a single executive, including energy, vigor, dispatch, firmness, consistency, and stability. Wilson was also the first delegate at the Convention to suggest that the President should be elected directly by the people. When this proposal failed to gain general support, he was then the first to propose an electoral college scheme, a modification of which ultimately found its way into the Constitution. He also favored a relatively brief presidential tenure of three years and reeligibility. These features would insure that the President would become and remain "the Man of the People."

Wilson's "Man of the People" was to be more than simply derived from their midst; he was also to be capable of acting vigorously on their behalf. As Wilson stressed in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention, the President was to be captain of the ship of state, holding firmly to the helm and allowing the vessel to "proceed neither in one direction or another without his concurrence." He was to be powerful and independent enough to protect the people from the excesses, instabilities, and injustices of legislative dominance. Wilson's captain was to take his bearings from the people and set his course according to their dictates. Because the people would not be easily misled, Wilson, unlike the federalist, would not have the President provide the people with direction or resist them when they were wrong.

Wilson also labored at the Convention for the establishment of a powerful judiciary. Because the judges would be appointed by the President and confirmed by the senate, he understood the judiciary to be "drawn from the same source, animated by the same principles, and directed to the same ends" and therefore "as much the friend of the people" as the other branches. As a consequence, it could be entrusted with the power of judicial review. So entrusted, it could serve as a "noble guard" defending the fundamental principles and will of the people as expressed in the Constitution from governmental sentiments—especially legislative sentiments—which from time to time might come to oppose them.

Wilson also helped to make federalism possible by arguing in the Convention that the people could create and assign power to more than "one set of immediate representatives." The delegates could preserve the states and at the same time establish a new national government because of the dual sovereignty of the people. He argued that both the states and the national government receive their authority directly from the people and owe their responsibility directly to them. The people are the sovereign foundation of all governments. As such, they can construct two levels of government and assign different powers to them. They can take powers from the state governments and place them in the national government. Wilson employed this same argument in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention to taunt those Anti-Federalists who contended that the people could not give to the national government whatever powers and for whatever purposes they pleased. He also operated from these premises in chisholm v. georgia (1793), his only truly important Supreme Court decision, in which he declared that the people of the United States had formed themselves into "a nation for national purposes" and that, consequently, states as well as individual persons were subject to the judicial power of the United States.

Wilson embraced and defended the "comprehensive Federal Republic" created by the Constitution not only because the people had chosen to construct such a level of government over them but also because he believed that a reciprocating relationship existed between the structure of government and the character of the people. A petty state would produce, he believed, petty men. The only lessons they would learn would be those of "low Vice" and "illiberal Cunning." Only a large republic would sustain and nourish the good qualities of the people. Only a large republic would produce noble citizens, worthy of the great political trust Wilson would place in them.

Central to Wilson's constitutional thought was his confidence in the good qualities of the people. In this regard, he differed from his fellow Framers, in that he relied upon what The Federalist considered "the weaker springs of human character." This difference was critical then and remains so now: Wilson's commitment to unrestrained majoritarian democracy stands in sharp contrast to the Constitution's more complex mitigated democracy that relies not so much on men as on institutions for our political salvation.

Ralph A. Rossum


Adams, Randolph Greenfield, ed. 1930 Selected Political Essays of James Wilson. New York: Knopf.

Mc Closkey, Robert Green, ed. 1967 The Works of James Wilson. 2 Vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Rossum, Ralphy A. 1976 James Wilson and the "Pyramid of Government": The Federal Republic. Political Science Reviewer 6:113–142.

Smith, Charles Page 1956 James Wilson: Founding Father. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

About this article

Wilson, James (1742–1798)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article