James Wilson’s Reidian Democratic Political Theory: one founder’s contributions to the US Constitution

Peters, David Harrison (2022) James Wilson’s Reidian Democratic Political Theory: one founder’s contributions to the US Constitution. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Scottish born James Wilson is a significant, but often forgotten American Founder. He played a key role in every stage of the development of the US Constitution, participating in the Constitutional Convention and ratification debates, as well as authoritatively interpreting the US Constitution as a Justice of the Supreme Court. Wilson’s contributions in each of these stages were radically democratic. This position is exemplified in his Revolution Principle that enshrines the notion that the people can change their constitution and any aspect of their government at any time and for any reason because they are perpetually sovereign, and hence, their consent authorises governments and law. This principle is also at the heart of Wilson’s theoretical explanation of his interpretation of the system of law and governance created by the US Constitution and the philosophy that underpins it, which he presents in his Lectures on Law. This explanation, which I describe as Wilson’s Democratic Political Theory, greatly aids in understanding Wilson’s contributions to the development of the US Constitution. Wilson formulated this theory partly through extensively and significantly adhering to and developing the Common Sense Philosophy of his fellow Scot, Thomas Reid. Though Wilson’s adherence to Reid has been recognised, its true extent has not been fully identified and formulated. Recognising Wilson’s adherence to Reid, helps reveal and explain that Wilson saw his theory as commencing something akin to a Newtonian revolution in the science of government, which when realised in practice (as he believed the US Constitution had), would commence a peaceful, progressive, and continuous revolution in the praxis of governance and law. This continuous revolution was the result of Wilson’s Revolution Principle and his proposed end of government: the protection and improvement of society. In Wilson’s theory, this principle and end, working in concert, would lead to the reciprocal improvement of government and society through the development and application of knowledge. This conception of a continuous revolution predicated on reciprocal improvement exemplifies the progressive nature of his Democratic Political Theory. Given Wilson’s significance in the development of the US Constitution and the progressive and radically democratic nature of Wilson’s theory, recovering and rehabilitating Wilson supplements and challenges the existing scholarship concerning the early American republic. Furthermore, rehabilitating Wilson also potentially presents an alternative to contemporary conceptions of the Founding and US Constitution, particularly those presented by Originalism and the Founders’ Intent Political Ideology. Doing so, could inform and potentially help to address the current American political crisis and the socioepistemological divide that characterises it. This highlights Wilson’s significance, revealing his continued neglect in scholarship as a grave oversight, and his absences from popular American conceptions of the Founding and US Constitution as a disservice to the American people.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Social & Environmental Sustainability
Precurrent Departments > School of Interdisciplinary Studies
Supervisor's Name: Jessop, Dr. Ralph and Smith, Dr. Craig
Date of Award: 2022
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2022-83037
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 20 Jul 2022 15:24
Last Modified: 08 Aug 2023 13:01
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.83037
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/83037

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