Portrait of James Wilson

James Wilson asks if man exists for the sake of government, or is government instituted for the sake of man? (1791)

Found in: Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 2

James Wilson (1742-1798), one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and one of the original justices appointed by George Washington to the United States Supreme Court, delivered some Lectures on Law in 1790-91 in which he argued that the function of government was to protect and enlarge an individual’s existing natural rights, not to subvert or restrain them:

Natural Rights

I here close my examination into those natural rights, which, in my humble opinion, it is the business of civil government to protect, and not to subvert, and the exercise of which it is the duty of civil government to enlarge, and not to restrain. I go farther; and now proceed to show, that in peculiar instances, in which those rights can receive neither protection nor reparation from civil government, they are, notwithstanding its institution, entitled still to that defence, and to those methods of recovery, which are justified and demanded in a state of nature.