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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? Or is there to be a gradation of law as well as of excellence? Is the command of the first to the third to be conveyed through the medium of the second? Is the obedience of the third to be paid, through the same medium, to the first? Augment the number of grades, and you multiply the confusion of their intricate and endless consequences.

Is this a foundation sufficient for supporting the solid and durable superstructure of law? Shall this foundation, insufficient as it is, be laid in the contingency—allowed to be improbable, not asserted to be even possible—“if a man can be found, excelling in all virtues?”

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.q 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. But these pretensions, absurd and ridiculous as they are, when rounded and gilded by flattery, and swallowed by pride, have become, in the breasts of princes, a deadly poison to their own virtues, and to the happiness of their unfortunate subjects. Those, who have been bred to be kings, have generally, by the prostituted views of their courtiers and instructors, been taught to esteem themselves a distinct and superiour species among men, in the same manner as men are a distinct and superiour species among animals.

Lewis the fourteenth was a strong instance of the effect of that inverted manner of teaching and thinking, which forms kings to be tyrants, without knowing or even suspecting that they are so. That oppression, under which he held his subjects, during the whole course of his long reign, proceeded chiefly from the principles and habits of his erroneous education. By this, he had been accustomed to consider his kingdom as his patrimony, and his power over his subjects as his rightful and undelegated inheritance. These sentiments were so deeply and strongly imprinted on his mind, that when one of his ministers represented to him the miserable condition to which those subjects were reduced, and, in the course of his representation, frequently used the word “l’etat,” the state; the king, though he felt the truth, and approved the substance of all that was said, yet was shocked at the frequent repetition of the word “l’etat,” and complained of it as an indecency offered to his person and character.

And, indeed, that kings should imagine themselves the final causes, for which men were made, and societies were formed, and governments were instituted, will cease to be a matter of wonder or surprise, when we find that lawyers, and statesmen, and philosophers have taught or favoured principles, which necessarily lead to the same conclusions.

About this Quotation:

The image of some men being born with a saddle on their backs and therefore destined to be ridden by others was a common one in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here we have the jurist James Wilson arguing against the Blackstonian notion that law is made by a sovereign who is “superior,” and therefore has a right to command, and that the people are “inferior” and thus obligated to obey these laws. Wilson wants to know what makes the sovereign superior to the people – is it because he wields superior force? has he been endowed with divine sanction? As there is no physical mark, like a camel’s hump or a cock’s comb, which makes it clear beyond any doubt that the one is superior to the other, Wilson concludes that it is the consent of the people which gives the law its legitimacy. Any other conclusion smacks of the principle of divine right and is dismissed as a “pretension to superiority” which is “absurd and ridiculous.” Wilson also notes the important part played by courtiers, lawyers, statesmen, and philosophers who flatter the sovereign and encourage him in the belief that “his power over his subjects (i)s his rightful and undelegated inheritance.”

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