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The Pyramid and the Machine: Founding Visions of the Nation in the Life of James Wilson

Posted: 29 Jan 2007  

John Fabian Witt

Yale University - Law School


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

Suggested Citation

Witt, John Fabian, The Pyramid and the Machine: Founding Visions of the Nation in the Life of James Wilson. Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 07-142. Available at SSRN:

John Fabian Witt (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-4944 (Phone)

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