Journal Article

Do the people of the United States form a nation? James Wilson's theory of rights

Daniel N. Robinson

in International Journal of Constitutional Law

Published on behalf of The New York University School of Law

Volume 8, issue 2, pages 287-297
Published in print April 2010 | ISSN: 1474-2640
Published online April 2010 | e-ISSN: 1474-2659 | DOI:
Do the people of the United States form a nation? James Wilson's theory of rights

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There is widespread recognition of the pivotal contributions James Wilson made to the constitutional jurisprudence of the United States. Controversy continues, however, over the question of the grounding of Wilson's own jurisprudence. Some contend that he provides no consistent argument by which to derive natural rights from natural law; that his frequent references to divine sources are pro forma; that his opposition to a bill of rights for the new republic is at variance with claims he made in behalf of the plaintiff in the landmark Chisholm v. Georgia. An examination of Wilson's reasoning in that case, coupled with his law lectures and speeches in the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, establishes important distinctions between his conception of natural rights and the authoritative arguments of Grotius and Pufendorf that he cites. Moreover, rather than a refinement or derivation of precepts from venerable English sources, specifically “Magna Charta”, the U. S. Constitution is understood by Wilson as the means by which a people defend themselves against the very implications drawn from such sources. The difficult task faced in Chisholm is that of retaining the sovereignty of the person while establishing the authority of a centralized government. It will be seen that, in approaching this task, Wilson's principal conceptual resources are Reidian and especially well suited to a new world suspicious of theories aloof to lived life.

Journal Article.  5203 words. 

Subjects: Constitutional and Administrative Law ; UK Politics

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