Front Page Titles (by Subject) James Wilson's Opinion in Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. 199 (1796), 281 - Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 1
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James Wilson’s Opinion in Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. 199 (1796), 281 - James Wilson, Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 1 
Collected Works of James Wilson, edited by Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, with an Introduction by Kermit L. Hall, and a Bibliographical Essay by Mark David Hall, collected by Maynard Garrison (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 1.
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James Wilson’s Opinion in Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. 199 (1796), 281
The Treaty of Paris (1783) protected the right of British creditors to collect loans made before the Revolution. However, Virginia had passed a law in 1777 effectively abolishing those debts. A unanimous Supreme Court voided the Virginia law, thus helping to establish the supremacy of federal treaties over state law. Wilson’s seriatim opinion is printed below.
Wilson, Justice. I shall be concise in delivering my opinion, as it depends on a few plain principles. If Virginia had a power to pass the law of October 1777, she must be equally empowered to pass a similar law in any future war; for, the powers of Congress were, in fact, abridged by the articles of confederation; and in relation to the present Constitution, she still retains her sovereignty and independence as a State, except in the instances of express delegation to the Federal Government. There are two points involved in the discussion of this power of confiscation: The first arising from the rule prescribed by the law of nations; and the second arising from the construction of the treaty of peace. When the United States declared their independence, they were bound to receive the law of nations, in its modern state of purity and refinement. By every nation, whatever is its form of government, the confiscation of debts has long been considered disreputable: and, we know, that not a single confiscation of that kind stained the code of any of the European powers, who were engaged in the war, which our revolution produced. Nor did any authority for the confiscation of debts proceed from Congress (that body, which clearly possessed the right of confiscation, as an incident of the powers of war and peace) and, therefore, in no instance can the act of confiscation be considered as an act of the nation. But even if Virginia had the power to confiscate, the treaty annuls the confiscation. The fourth article is well expressed to meet the very case: it is not confined to debts existing at the time of making the treaty; but is extended to debts heretofore contracted. It is impossible by any glossary, or argument, to make the words more perspicuous, more conclusive, than by a bare recital. Independent, therefore, of the Constitution of the United States, (which authoritatively inculcates the obligation of contracts) the treaty is sufficient to remove every impediment founded on the law of Virginia. The State made the law; the State was a party to the making of the treaty: a law does nothing more than express the will of a nation; and a treaty does the same. Under this general view of the subject, I think the judgment of the Circuit Court ought to be reversed.