A Forgotten Founder on the Tyranny of Legislative Authority

Lee Cary
James Wilson (1742-1798) of Pennsylvania was one of six persons who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He's also the only Justice of the Supreme Court to be jailed for indebtedness.  It happened shortly before his death after he failed badly as a land speculator.  His son eventually paid off his debts totaling $197,000.

Despite his ignoble ending, Wilson was one of the biggest brains among the Founders. In "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British parliament, 1774," originally written in 1768, he addressed the British public concerning the proper authority of Great Britain's Parliament over the Colonies. In that context he wrote this:

"Long parliaments have always been prejudicial to the prince, who summoned them, or to the people, who elected them. In that called by King Charles I, in the year 1640, the commons proceeded at first, with vigour {sic} and a true patriotic {sic} spirit, to rescue the kingdom from the oppression under which it then groaned-to retrieve the liberties of the people, and establish them on the surest foundations-and to remove or prevent the pernicious consequences, which had arisen, or which, they dreaded, might arise from the tyrannical exercise of prerogative. They abolished the courts of the star chamber and high commission: they reduced the forests to their ancient bounds: they repealed the oppressive statutes concerning knighthood: they declared the tax of ship money to be illegal: they presented the petition of rights, and obtained a ratification of it from the crown.

But when the king unadvisedly passed an act to continue them till such time as they should please to dissolve themselves, how soon-how fatally did their conduct change! In what misery did they involve their country! Those very men, who, while they had only a constitutional power, seemed to have no other aim but to secure and improve the liberty and felicity of their constituents, and to render their sovereign the glorious ruler of a free and happy people-those very men, after they became independent of the king and of their electors, sacrificed both to that inordinate power which had been given them. A regard for the publick {sic} was now no longer the spring of their actions: their only view was to aggrandize themselves, and to establish their grandeur on the ruins of their country. Their views unhappily were accomplished. They overturned the constitution from its very foundation; and converted into rods of oppression those instruments of power, which had been put into their hands for the welfare of the state; but which those, who had formerly given them, could not now reassume. What an instructive example is this! How alarming to those, who have no influence over their legislators-who have no security but that the power, which was originally derived from the people, and was delegated for their preservation, may be abused for their destruction! Kings are not the only tyrants: the conduct of the long parliament will justify me in adding, that kings are not the severest tyrants."

Today's debt crisis confirms the wisdom of James Wilson. Our focus today is, justifiably, on the fiscal irresponsibility of the Democratic Party and the Obama administration.  But any candid appraisal of our collective fiscal situation must admit that the spending addiction among both major political parties has taken us to the edge of national bankruptcy.  And that is a form of tyranny.

James Wilson (1742-1798) of Pennsylvania was one of six persons who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He's also the only Justice of the Supreme Court to be jailed for indebtedness.  It happened shortly before his death after he failed badly as a land speculator.  His son eventually paid off his debts totaling $197,000.

Despite his ignoble ending, Wilson was one of the biggest brains among the Founders. In "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British parliament, 1774," originally written in 1768, he addressed the British public concerning the proper authority of Great Britain's Parliament over the Colonies. In that context he wrote this:

"Long parliaments have always been prejudicial to the prince, who summoned them, or to the people, who elected them. In that called by King Charles I, in the year 1640, the commons proceeded at first, with vigour {sic} and a true patriotic {sic} spirit, to rescue the kingdom from the oppression under which it then groaned-to retrieve the liberties of the people, and establish them on the surest foundations-and to remove or prevent the pernicious consequences, which had arisen, or which, they dreaded, might arise from the tyrannical exercise of prerogative. They abolished the courts of the star chamber and high commission: they reduced the forests to their ancient bounds: they repealed the oppressive statutes concerning knighthood: they declared the tax of ship money to be illegal: they presented the petition of rights, and obtained a ratification of it from the crown.

But when the king unadvisedly passed an act to continue them till such time as they should please to dissolve themselves, how soon-how fatally did their conduct change! In what misery did they involve their country! Those very men, who, while they had only a constitutional power, seemed to have no other aim but to secure and improve the liberty and felicity of their constituents, and to render their sovereign the glorious ruler of a free and happy people-those very men, after they became independent of the king and of their electors, sacrificed both to that inordinate power which had been given them. A regard for the publick {sic} was now no longer the spring of their actions: their only view was to aggrandize themselves, and to establish their grandeur on the ruins of their country. Their views unhappily were accomplished. They overturned the constitution from its very foundation; and converted into rods of oppression those instruments of power, which had been put into their hands for the welfare of the state; but which those, who had formerly given them, could not now reassume. What an instructive example is this! How alarming to those, who have no influence over their legislators-who have no security but that the power, which was originally derived from the people, and was delegated for their preservation, may be abused for their destruction! Kings are not the only tyrants: the conduct of the long parliament will justify me in adding, that kings are not the severest tyrants."

Today's debt crisis confirms the wisdom of James Wilson. Our focus today is, justifiably, on the fiscal irresponsibility of the Democratic Party and the Obama administration.  But any candid appraisal of our collective fiscal situation must admit that the spending addiction among both major political parties has taken us to the edge of national bankruptcy.  And that is a form of tyranny.