James Wilson (1742-1798): America's Forgotten Blackstone

Foster, Ethan, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Halliday, Paul, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Barzun, Charles, School of Law, University of Virginia
Nicoletti, Cynthia, School of Law, University of Virginia

James Wilson, an American founding father and legal scholar, vied to replace Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England with a systematic jurisprudence tailored for the new republic. Wilson articulated and applied his systematic legal theory as Constitutional Convention delegate, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and occupant of the first law professorship created after (and in response to) the Constitution’s ratification. Part I discusses the extent to which Blackstone’s reception in the American legal system was at odds with the principles that justified the Revolution. Wilson scrupulously read and criticized Blackstone’s Commentaries, and he hoped to replace the Commentaries with his own jurisprudence.

To replace Blackstone’s Commentaries with an American alternative, Wilson drafted a series of Lectures on Law. Part II examines the extent to which Wilson’s Lectures intentionally mimicked the structure, style, and even some of the content of Blackstone’s Commentaries. In a way, Wilson attempted to use Blackstone in order to surpass him. This had the potential to disguise Wilson’s criticisms and market his own legal philosophy so that it could be palatable, even to Blackstone’s supporters.

The heart of Wilson’s project was to relocate the American legal understanding of sovereignty, which Blackstone attributed to superiority, in the consent of the governed. Part III examines James Wilson’s substantive critique of Blackstone’s Commentaries, with particular emphasis on Blackstone’s definition of law. Wilson believed that, as long as Americans read Blackstone’s Commentaries, which insisted that law must come from a “superior,” the implications that Blackstone’s definition had for a general understanding of the law could be dangerous if given a foothold in the American court or classroom. As an alternative, Wilson argued that the fundamental principle of law was that its obligatory force came from the consent of the governed. This principle had vast implications for understanding municipal law. Among other things, Wilson’s so-called Revolution Principle—that law derives from the consent of the governed—made sense of America’s state and federal constitutions, justified greater public participation in shaping the law in the courtroom, and recommended transformations for the American common law system.

Under Wilson’s pen, an intricate legal philosophy emanated from, and was explained by, the Revolution Principle. But Wilson died before he could deliver all of his Lectures and before he could complete other projects which could have further vindicated his approach to American law. Part IV concludes with some reflections on the extent to which Wilson’s Lectures presented one possible vision of America’s future jurisprudence, a vision of the law that failed, in the end, to replace Blackstone’s successful Commentaries.

MA (Master of Arts)
Sovereignty, Legal History, Jurisprudence, William Blackstone, Legal Philosophy, Commentaries on the Laws of England, James Wilson, Natural Law, Constitutionalism, American Revolution, Law Lectures, Early American Republic, Founding Fathers, St. George Tucker, American Legal History, Jury Nullification, Scottish Common Sense

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