The Pyramid and the Machine: Founding Visions of the Nation in the Life of James Wilson
John Fabian Witt
Yale University - Law School
Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 07-142
This chapter of Patriots and Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law (Harvard U. Press, Feb. 2007) takes up the problem of lawyers in the American Revolution through the star-crossed life of founding father James Wilson: successful lawyer, signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Constitutional Convention, and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The chapter describes the ways in which American constitutionalism created pluralist institutional conditions in which lawyers would thrive by serving as brokers between interests and the state. Wilson, however, never quite grasped the Madisonian genius of American constitutionalism, nor its promise for the legal profession. Against the pluralist Madisonian machine of government among competing factions, Wilson imagined American constitutionalism as a pyramid resting on the moral consensus of a common moral faculty. Wilson's and Madison's ideas, the chapter suggests, were importantly different, and only the latter really grasped what the constitutional scheme had established. Ultimately, Wilson's increasingly feverish ideas about the moral faculty and the theoretical basis of U.S. constitutionalism even led to his imprisonment for debt and to his pathetic demise while fleeing his creditors, all while still a sitting Supreme Court justice.
Keywords: James Wilson, legal profession
Date posted: January 29, 2007
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