The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“James Wilson and ‘We the People’”- Prof. John Mikhail in Anchoring Truths

by James Wilson Institute on February 24, 2023

In an article for Anchoring Truths adapted from his remarks on a webinar, Prof. John Mikhail highlights the enormous contributions made by James Wilson in the formation of the Constitution, emphasizing his status as the author of the first draft of the American governing charter. Introducing the subject of Wilson’s work by way of his own interest in moral psychology and moral philosophy, Prof. Mikhail pays special attention to Wilson in terms of the origination of the famous phrase “We the People”, describing how Wilson’s deeply-rooted conviction in popular sovereignty led him to support the expansion of the democratic franchise. Prof. Mikhail also expounds upon Wilson’s strongly Federalist beliefs, a reflection of Wilson’s position that the national government derived its power from the people rather than the states.

Below are some excerpts. Read the whole article here.

“To a significant extent, I think, Wilson was ahead of his time in having a capacious understanding of We the People. There is a lot one could say on that point alone. The phrase “We the People” was not just a nice-sounding phrase for Wilson, because he believed deeply in the concept of popular sovereignty. Jonathan has written quite wonderfully about this subject, and others have as well. Perhaps more than any other Founder, Wilson saw how much the notion of popular sovereignty could do to justify the Constitution and its break with the Articles of Confederation, and to put the government of the United States on a new, sounder footing—a foundation that was not derived from the authority of the states, but from the authority of the people.”

“So that is one set of topics that makes Wilson quite instructive. But his significance goes well beyond the Preamble. He was one of the two chief draftsmen of the Constitution, along with Gouverneur Morris. Wilson was a member of the five-member Committee of Detail that did most of the actual construction of the Constitution in its first phase, in late July and early August of 1787. And as far as the evidence suggests, he was the leading draftsman of the committee. Edmund Randolph had produced an outline of the Constitution, which James Wilson then took and turned into the Constitution’s first complete draft.

In writing that draft, Wilson crafted many of the clauses and phrases that have become so important in American law: the Vesting Clauses, for example, at the beginning of Articles One, Two, and Three; the Necessary and Proper Clause, on which I have written extensively, which is a critical provision in the Constitution for understanding the separation of powers; the Take Care Clause, which goes to the heart of presidential authority; and the Supremacy Clause. Drawing upon a resolution that had been adopted by the convention, Wilson framed the first version of the Supremacy Clause in the Committee of Detail draft. And in composing it, he did something really critical, which was to subordinate state constitutions to federal law. Wilson was a nationalist, who often thought of ways to enlarge federal authority. He also was one of the strongest champions of implied national powers at the convention and thereafter.”

Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790