[BOOKS] ✭ James Wilson, Founding Father, 1742-98 By Page Smith – Horse-zine.co.uk

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    The life of James Wilson, as much as any founding founder, challenges biographers to reconcile the lofty ideals and the mercenary character so evident among the leadership of the American Revolution The author, Charles Page Smith, excels when exploring Wilson s legal genius and contributions to the new American nation, but he questionably lapses into apologetic bromides to self interest to explain Wilson s penchant for the land and mercantile speculations that eventually led to his financial ruin The child of Presbyterian farmers, Wilson emigrated from Scotland a little than a decade prior to the Declaration of Independence In America, Wilson apprenticed in law and established a successful practice in Pennsylvania counties outside of Philadelphia Like many British emigrants, he faced a choice between the cause of American freedom or loyalty to the British empire as transatlantic tensions escalated Educated in the Scottish Enlightenment, Wilson sided with independence and cited abstract legal and political principles as justification for the American Revolution His first pamphlet on behalf of the rights of Americans declared, The first maxims of jurisprudence are ever kept in view that all power is derived from the people that their happiness is the end of government 55 Smith s research demonstrates that Wilson remained remarkably committed to the sovereignty of the people in the new nation During the era of constitutional making, he continued to uphold the primacy of democracy in government That the supreme powershould be vested in the people, is in my judgment the great panacea of human politics It is a power paramount to every constitution, inalienable in its nature, and indefinite in its extent 269 70 As evidence of his visionary understanding of democracy, Wilson advocated for the direct election of representatives, senators, and the president during the Constitutional Convention He later decried electors as a perversion of the commonwealth the interests of the Electors added together will form but a small Part of the Interests of the whole and that small Part may be altogether unattached, nay, it may be altogether repugnant to the Remainder 302 After adoption of the US Constitution, George Washington named him one of the first justices to the US Supreme Court As a scholar, Wilson defined the first principle of American jurisprudence as such A revolution principle certainly is, and certainly should be taught as a principle of the constitution of the United States, and every state in the Union This revolution principle that, the sovereign power residing in the people, they may change their constitution and government whenever they please is not a principle of discord, rancor, or war it is a principle of melioration, contentment, and peace 312 Smith construes Wilson s intellectual consistencies as evidence that Wilson insisted on his vision of a larger citizenship of men who are not only loyal citizens of a nation but of the world 339 Despite the high minded revolutionary philosophy, Wilson nonetheless exploited his government roles and his reputation to speculate in land ventures and manufacturing enterprises The volatile economy and reckless speculation of the 1790s eventually bankrupted him While still a Supreme Court justice, James Wilson fled Pennsylvania for North Carolina to hide from his creditors and to avoid debtors prison He died soon after, in 1798, before reaching age 60 The question of whether personal avarice or public ideals animated the founding fathers motivations continues to be a significant one for American historians Smith s biography of James Wilson astutely frames the problem and explores the high minded legal doctrines advanced by Wilson on behalf of the American Revolution, but Smith s flippant passages on the nature of self interest detract from his otherwise serious and informative study of this revolutionary leader.


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