The View From 1776

James Wilson: A Nearly Forgotten Founder

Today’s students have become easy prey for anti-American educators, who teach them that our nation was founded as an amoral, materialistic society, by men whose only concern was self-enrichment at the expense of “the people.”  Only by spotlighting the people and the moral ethos that produced the Constitution can we expect to restore and to preserve the original Constitution.

The Scottish Enlightenment & America’s Founding
?by Robert Curry

James Wilson, the Declaration and the Constitution

All men are, by nature, equal and free? all lawful government is founded on the consent of those who are subject to it.  Such consent was given with a view to ensure and to increase the happiness of the governed, above what they could enjoy in an independent and unconnected state of nature.  The consequence is, that the happiness of the society is the


law of every government.                                         

James Wilson, 1774

Any examination of the impact of the Scottish Enlightenment on America?s Founding must consider James Wilson.  A Scot, educated at St. Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment, he was a signer of the Declaration, one of the most consequential of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention and a Justice of the original Supreme Court, appointed by George Washington. 

The quote is from an influential pamphlet Wilson wrote, a pamphlet that was closely studied by Jefferson. Here Wilson presents a fundamental argument of the Scottish moral philosophers, in a version first developed by Francis Hutcheson.  The Founders relied on this argument in both of America?s great founding documents.

The most famous phrase in the Declaration is ?Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.?  Much ink has been spilled over the third term.  If Jefferson was following Locke it should have read ??and property?—but Jefferson was not following Locke.  Like Wilson, he was following Hutcheson.  Hutcheson argued that Locke was wrong, that property is not one of our unalienable rights, and Jefferson agreed with Hutcheson.

Of course, the argument quoted above is about sovereignty as well, and here the argument also impacts the Constitution. 

Wilson and James Madison were both dedicated to the idea that the people are sovereign.  One way to view the Constitutional Convention is to see it as a dialogue between them about how to shape the Constitution so that the people?s sovereignty is built into the design of the government. 

Both Madison and Wilson are thoroughly schooled in the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment.  They are the most learned delegates in history and political theory, and each is closely allied with one of the two most esteemed men in the room, Washington and Franklin.  Everyone in the room knew that Madison spoke for Washington; he was even seated to the right of the dais from which Washington presided.  Only Washington and Madison faced the other delegates.  Wilson was paired with Franklin.  Wilson read Franklin?s prepared statements for him. 

The best way to understand the Constitutional Convention is to envision it dramatically.  Even the staging tells the story, and seems to predict the outcome; Washington and Franklin faced each other, united in their desire for the Convention to succeed.

Washington rarely spoke, confining himself to the role of president.  Franklin held his fire for the critical moments when his enormous prestige was needed to find a way forward by compromise.  Their brilliant junior associates conducted the campaign.  Madison opened with the Virginia Plan; Wilson played a central role in the debate and in the final decisive action, the drafting of the Constitution by the 5 man committee that gave it the shape we know today.