James Wilson

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That men ought to be governed, seems to have been agreed on all hands: the reason is, that, without government, they could never attain any high or permanent share of perfection or happiness. But the question has been ― by whom should they be governed? And this has been made a question, by reason of two others ― by whom can they be governed? ― are they capable of governing themselves?

James Wilson (September 14, 1742August 21, 1798) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence. Wilson was elected twice to the Continental Congress, where he represented Pennsylvania, and was a major force in drafting the United States Constitution. A leading legal theorist, he was one of the six original justices appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States.


  • Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is divine. Far from being rivals or enemies religion and law are twin sisters, friends, and mutual assistance. Indeed, these two sciences run into each other.
    • as quoted in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson (Philadelphia: Bronson and Chauncey, 1804), Vol. I, pp. 106 & 103-105.
  • We have viewed, in a number of instances, the accommodating spirit of the common law. In other instances, its temper is decided and firm. The means are varied according to times and circumstances; but the great ends of liberty are kept steadily and constantly in view.
    Its foundations were laid in remote antiquity, have not been overturned by the successive invasions, or migrations, or revolutions which have taken place. The reason has already been hinted at: it contains the common dictates of nature, refined by wisdom and experience, as occasions offer, and cases arise.
    In all sciences, says my Lord Bacon, they are the soundest that keep closest to particulars. Indeed a science appears to be best formed into a system, by a number of instances drawn from observation and experience, and reduced gradually into general rules; still subject, however, to successive improvements, which future observation or experience may suggest to be proper. The natural progress of the human mind, in the acquisition of knowledge, is from particular facts to general principles. This progress is familiar to all in the business of life; it is the only one, by which real discoveries have been made in philosophy; and it is the one, which has directed and superintended the instauration of the common law. In this view, common law, like natural philosophy, when properly studied, is a science founded on experiment. The latter is improved and established by carefully and wisely attending to the phenomena of the material world; the former, by attending, in the same manner, to those of man and society. Hence, in both, the most regular and undeviating principles will be found, on accurate investigation, to guide and control the most diversified and disjointed appearances.
    How steadily and how effectually has the spirit of liberty animated the common law, in all the vicissitudes, revolutions, and dangers, to which that system has been exposed! In matters of a civil nature, that system works itself pure by rules drawn from the fountain of justice : in matters of a political nature, it works itself pure by rules drawn from the fountain of freedom.
    • James Wilson, Lectures on Law, p.43-44, Lorenzo Press, printed for Bronson and Chauncey, 1804
  • The executive power is better to be trusted when it has no screen. Sir, we have a responsibility in the person of our President; he cannot act improperly, and hide either his negligence or inattention; he cannot roll upon any other person the weight of his criminality; no appointment can take place without his nomination; and he is responsible for every nomination he makes... far from being above the laws, he is amenable to them in his private character as a citizen, and in his public character by impeachment.
  • To the Constitution of the United States the term SOVEREIGN, is totally unknown.
  • Man, fearfully and wonderfully made, is the workmanship of his all perfect Creator: A State; useful and valuable as the contrivance is, is the inferior contrivance of man; and from his native dignity derives all its acquired importance.
  • Let a state be considered as subordinate to the people: But let everything else be subordinate to the state.
  • By a State I mean, a complete body of free persons united together for their common benefit, to enjoy peaceably what is their own, and to do justice to others.

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