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James Wilson argues that it is the people, not the prince, who is superior in matters of legal sovereignty (1790)

In a series of Lectures on Law which James Wilson (1742-1798), one of the first Justices on the Supreme Court, gave in 1790 he dismisses as “absurd and ridiculous” the idea that the monarch is sovereign over the people because he is “superior” in some way:

Had it been the intention of Providence, that some men should govern the rest, without their consent, we should have seen as indisputable marks distinguishing these superiours from those placed under them, as those which distinguish men from the brutes. The remark of Rumbald, in the nonresistance time of Charles the second, evinced propriety as well as wit. He could not conceive that the Almighty intended, that the greatest part of mankind should come into the world with saddles on their backs and bridles in their mouths, and that a few should come ready booted and spurred to ride the rest to death. Still more apposite to our purpose is the saying of him, who declared that he would never subscribe the doctrine of the divine right of princes, till he beheld subjects born with bunches on their backs, like camels, and kings with combs on their heads, like cocks; from which striking marks it might indeed be collected, that the former were designed to labour and to suffer, and the latter, to strut and to crow.

These pretensions to superiority, when viewed from the proper point of sight, appear, indeed, absurd and ridiculous.

There is a law, indeed, which flows from the Supreme of being—a law, more distinguished by the goodness, than by the power of its allgracious Author. But there are laws also that are human; and does it follow, that, in these, a character of superiority is inseparably attached to him, who makes them; and that a character of inferiority is, in the same manner, inseparably attached to him, for whom they are made? What is this superiority? Who is this superiour? By whom is he constituted? Whence is his superiority derived? Does it flow from a source that is human? Or does it flow from a source that is divine?

From a human source it cannot flow; for no stream issuing from thence can rise higher than the fountain.

If the prince, who makes laws for a people, is superiour, in the terms of the definition, to the people, who are to obey; how comes he to be vested with the superiority over them?

If I mistake not, this notion of superiority, which is introduced as an essential part in the definition of a law—for we are told that a law alwayse supposes some superiour, who is to make it—this notion of superiority contains the germ of the divine right—a prerogative impiously attempted to be established—of princes, arbitrarily to rule; and of the corresponding obligation—a servitude tyrannically attempted to be imposed—on the people, implicitly to obey.

Despotism, by an artful use of “superiority” in politicks; and scepticism, by an artful use of “ideas” in metaphysicks, have endeavoured—and their endeavours have frequently been attended with too much success—to destroy all true liberty and sound philosophy. By their baneful effects, the science of man and the science of government have been poisoned to their very fountains. But those destroyers of others have met, or must meet, with their own destruction.

We now see, how necessary it is to lay the foundations of knowledge deep and solid. If we wish to build upon the foundations laid by another, we see how necessary it is cautiously and minutely to examine them. If they are unsound, we see how necessary it is to remove them, however venerable they may have become by reputation; whatever regard may have been diffused over them by those who laid them, by those who built on them, and by those who have supported them.

But was Sir William Blackstone a votary of despotick power? I am far from asserting that he was. I am equally far from believing that Mr. Locke was a friend to infidelity. But yet it is unquestionable, that the writings of Mr. Locke have facilitated the progress, and have given strength to the effects of scepticism.



Guided and supported by the sentiments and by the conduct of Grotius and Bacon, let us proceed, with freedom and candour combined, to examine the judgment—though I am very doubtful whether it was the judgment—of Aristotle, that the right of sovereignty is founded on superiour excellence.

To that superiority, which attaches the right to command, there must be a corresponding inferiority, which imposes the obligation to obey. Does this right and this obligation result from every kind and every degree of superiority in one, and from every kind and every degree of inferiority in another? How is excellence to be rated or ascertained?

Let us suppose three persons in three different grades of excellence. Is he in the lowest to receive the law immediately from him in the highest? Is he in the highest to give the law immediately to him in the lowest grade?