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Thursday, September 14, 2017

When Government is Restrained Liberty Reigns Triumphant

“Without a good government, liberty cannot exist.”

If you were asked, “who is the least-known of America’s founders?” a good answer would be James Wilson. Even 17 years after the release of Castaway, Tom Hanks’ volleyball “friend” is better remembered. But Wilson deserves far better.

James Wilson was one of only six to sign both the Declaration of Independence and The United States Constitution. 

The Forgotten Founder

James Wilson was one of only six to sign both the Declaration of Independence and The United States Constitution. Before either, his Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament argued that England had no authority to legislate for the colonies. It was widely read, including by members of the Continental Congress, to which he was elected in 1775. There, he argued for complete separation from England.

Wilson was chosen as a member of the Committee on Detail, which produced the first draft of the Constitution. He also argued forcefully for ratification of the final version in Pennsylvania. In fact, his October 6, 1787, Ratification Speech before the Pennsylvania Legislature received more coverage than The Federalist Papers.

George Washington appointed Wilson to the first Supreme Court in 1789. He then became America’s first legal philosopher in a set of law lecture at the beginning of 1790, spelling out the thinking behind early Supreme Court decisions.

The purpose of government is to secure the pre-existing rights of its people.

The Role of Government 

Perhaps most striking about James Wilson was his understanding that the purpose of government was to secure the pre-existing rights of its members and that the Constitution was crafted to create such a government. Remembering those ideas, now seriously compromised and threatened with further erosion, would benefit Americans.

Wilson clarified our founders’ understanding of law:

The defense of one’s self, justly called the primary law of nature, is not, nor can it be, abrogated by any regulation.”

What does each individual’s self-ownership, and right of self-defense that derives from it, mean for government? “All men are by nature equal and free. No one has a right to any authority over another without his consent.”

Wilson spelled out the implications of government consistent with that understanding of law:

The liberty of every member is increased…each gains more by the limitation of the freedom of every other member, than he loses by the limitation of his own. The result is that civil government is necessary to the perfection and happiness of man.”

In consequence, government “should be formed to secure and enlarge the exercise of the natural rights of its members; and every government which has not this in view as its principal object is not a government of the legitimate kind.”

“All men are by nature equal and free. No one has a right to any authority over another without his consent.”

Since all must be better protected to expand everyone’s rights and liberties, the law had to treat everyone equally. “In the enjoyment of their persons and of their property, the common law protects all.” No one’s liberty could be invaded; no one’s property could be violated. Instead, “private property and personal liberty…will be guarded with firmness and watchfulness.” This is what led America’s founders to agree with Wilson that “without a good government, liberty cannot exist.”

Because good government was considered central to liberty, “A good constitution is the greatest blessing which a society can enjoy.” And because “in this government, liberty shall reign triumphant,” Americans were bequeathed “that system of government which would best promote their freedom and happiness.”

Because of the existence of those who would override our free choices with their dictates, an important consequence follows:

Among the virtues necessary to merit and preserve the advantages of good government [are] a warm and uniform attachment to liberty and to the Constitution…The enemies of liberty are artful and insidious…Against these enemies… the patriot citizen will keep a watchful guard.”

James Wilson was a great American statesman whose words reveal what was truly revolutionary about our experiment in liberty. His discussion of “those principles upon which we ourselves have thought and acted,” which echoed John Locke’s recognition that just government exists for the good of its people – not the other way around – is worth re-learning on his September 14 birthday. Although “without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression,” our government has eroded liberty far more than it has honored and defended it.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).