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Scots thinkers who forged new democracy from the colonies

James Wilson

James Wilson

THE SCOTSMAN 10 April 2008
In an age in which abstract political ideas and ideals have been submerged by politics and political commentary, we have become used to thinking of the US President simply as a politician, identifying the office with its passing and party-aligned occupant. But as well as being a head of government the US president is also a head of state, empowered to direct the nation in a manner not altogether unlike that of a constitutional monarch issuing decrees.

Something of the dignity and authority of that sovereign role was in evidence a few days ago when George W. Bush signed a document in which he declared “by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, [I] do hereby proclaim April 6, 2008, as National Tartan Day. I call upon all Americans to observe this day by celebrating the continued friendship between the people of Scotland and the United States and by recognizing the contributions of Scottish Americans to our Nation.”

Earlier the White House declaration speaks of how “Americans of Scottish descent have made enduring contributions to our Nation with their hard work, faith, and values” and of how “many of our country’s most cherished customs and ideals first grew to maturity on Scotland’s soil. The Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish Declaration of Independence signed in 1320, embodied the Scots’ strong dedication to liberty, and the Scots brought that tradition of freedom with them to the New World . . . Several of our Founding Fathers were of Scottish descent, as have been many Presidents and Justices of the United States Supreme Court”.

Tracing national and ethnic ancestries is something of an American pastime, recently made a great deal easier by the availability on the internet of the vast genealogy record collection of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. (The Mormons developed it because of their belief that ancestors can be saved through posthumous baptism). But in considering the Scottish contribution to the establishment of American political ideals the President could have mentioned not only those of Scots descent but those of Scottish birth.

Nearly half the signatories of the Declaration of Independence could claim Scottish ancestry, and it has been noted how the terms of that document resemble the language of the Declaration of Arbroath. But we don’t need to speculate about Scots’ ancestral traces and their possible influence, given that one of the main figures involved in establishing the American state was Scots born and educated through school and university.

James Wilson (1742-1798) was one of only six signatories to both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. In later histories of the Founding period he came to be somewhat overlooked in the attention given to Adams, Madison, Washington, and Jefferson (who could claim kinship with Robert the Bruce). Yet in his own time Wilson’s contemporaries recognised the power of his mind, the force of his oratory, the wisdom of his judgements, and, in due course, the benign efficacy of his policies.

Wilson brought much to America from the Scottish intellectual tradition, in particular the study of human nature and of the philosophical principles of law. He was born to a farming family in Carskerdo in Fife. From the local school at Cupar he progressed with the aid of a scholarship to the nearby University of St Andrews, and later studied also at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow while the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were relatively new born and still developing.

In 1765, age twenty-three, Wilson emigrated to North America where he began to teach, but he soon returned to his own studies, now for the law. Over the next decade he was drawn into the politics of the Revolutionary period, being elected to the Pennsylvania provincial assembly from which he was sent to the Continental Congress. Thereafter his role as a Founding Father began, first signing the Declaration of Independence, then after a period out of Congress during which he developed a successful business career, being re-elected and proceeding to his role in the Philadelphia Convention and the ratification of the Constitution there in his home state of Pennsylvania.

In 1789 Washington appointed Wilson associate justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held until his death in 1798, and in 1790 he delivered a series of lectures on law at the College of Philadelphia in which he set out the rationale for a number of constitutional principles and explored the connections between natural law, common law, and the developing field of the ‘law of nations’ a branch of jurisprudence then being developed in Scotland and which was rooted in the belief that long-term economic success requires a secure legal structure. Ironically his own ventures in land speculation were unsuccessful and unpaid debts led to his brief arrest and imprisonment. To escape his creditors he fled south to Carolina where he died a bankrupt.

A century after his death, however, Wilson resumed his place in the roll call of America’s Founders and in 1906 his body was returned to Pennsylvania from North Carolina, to be given a public burial in the graveyard of Christchurch in Philadelphia nearby the tomb of his fellow co-signatory Benjamin Franklin. Prior to that re-interment his remains lay in state in Independence Hall where in 1787 Wilson had contributed to the constitutional debates, never failing, as one contemporary observer put it, “to throw the strongest light on his subjects … produc[ing] greater orations than any other man I have ever heard”.

In the year following his re-burial, a lawyer and academic L.H. Alexander published a life of Wilson in which he wrote that “two great figures . . . loom from the Revolutionary era, the one, Wilson’s, whose brain conceived and created the nation; the other, Washington’s, who wielded the physical forces that made it”. Meanwhile in Britain the distinguished historian, Regius Professor of civil Law at Oxford, cabinet minister, and British Ambassador to the United States, Lord Bryce, wrote that “The speeches of James Wilson in the Pennsylvania ratifying Convention, as well as in the great Convention of 1787, display an amplitude and profundity of view in matters of constitutional theory which place him in the first rank of the political thinkers of his age”.

In his own time some of Wilson’s ideas about democracy, about popular elections, about the case for an independent judiciary, a bicameral assembly, and a single executive or President, were viewed by some with doubt and even, in the latter case, with suspicion; yet those ideas soon proved to be both just and effective. His ability to judge well the needs of a free republic was the mark of a powerful and deep mind, but also of extensive studies in history, politics, law and philosophy.

Wilson’s intellectual roots, as well as his genetic ones lie in Scotland but even as he studied at St Andrews a Scots-American intellectual connection was being forged with an honorary degree being awarded (in 1759) to a man who would be his fellow Declaration and Constitution co-signatory, and besides whose skeleton his own bones lie, namely Benjamin Franklin. As George Bush issued his decree regarding Tartan Day he might have been reminded that the existence of the office of US President owes much to the thinking of Wilson.

This is a version of an article that first appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on Thursday 10 April 2008.

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