Collected Works of James Wilson Set

James Wilson (Author)

Product Details

$24.00  $22.08
Liberty Fund
Publish Date
October 22, 2007
6.0 X 9.0 X 2.7 inches | 3.85 pounds

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About the Author

James Wilson [1742-1798] was one of the most influential delegates to the Federal Constitutional Convention and one of the six founding fathers who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He was also the principal author of the Pennsylvania Constitution, a professor of law and an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.


Wilson was one of six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, played critical roles in the ratification debates and the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, and served on the Supreme Court from 1789 until his death in 1798. Yet his legacy has received minimal attention. This two-volume set collects his writings and his lectures on law delivered at the College of Philadelphia. Editor Kermit Hall, a constitutional law scholar and legal historian, and former president of the U. at Albany, State U. of New York, provides an extensive introduction; Mark David Hall (political science, George Fox University) prepared the bibliographical essay.

Reference - Research Book News
February 2008

This is a welcome fourth edition of James Wilson's collected works. More comprehensive than its predecessors, this two-volume selection combines several speeches and essays with the important series of law lectures that Wilson gave to the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) between 1790 and 1792. Prior to his death in 1798, Wilson carefully recorded these lectures in fifty-two notebooks, hoping to publish them as the American equivalent of Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. Wilson's financial ruin prevented him from completing this plan, but his son, Bird, faithfully edited and published the notebooks in 1804. These law lectures, together with some additional material, comprised the first edition of Wilson's works. A second, less complete, collection was printed in 1896. Robert G. McCloskey then edited a third and, until now, standard selection in 1967. With McCloskey's two-volume set long out-of-print, this new Liberty Press edition, edited by Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, aims "to stimulate new research and analysis of Wilson's contributions in the ongoing effort to determine accurately his rightful place in the founding era" of the United States (p. xiii). It will also encourage new scholarship on the connections between Scottish and American thought in the eighteenth century.

Wilson remains an understudied figure. Born in 1742 at Carskerdo, Fife, and educated at the University of St. Andrews, he emigrated to America in 1765 and played a critical role in the founding of the United States. After establishing himself as a lawyer in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he was a consistent advocate of popular sovereignty, strong national government, and the separation of powers. One of only six persons to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Wilson strongly influenced the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. He subsequently became a leading proponent of ratification, powerfully shaping federalist arguments in favor of the Constitution and against the Bill of Rights. Appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1789, he went on to write the court opinion in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) that prompted the Eleventh Amendment. However, his life ended in disgrace. Bankrupted by failed land and business ventures, Wilson fled Pennsylvania in 1796. He was twice arrested and jailed by his creditors. On the run, he suffered an obscure death in Edenton, North Carolina.

The earliest document in this edition is Wilson's pamphlet, Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, which he wrote in 1768 but did not publish until 1774. An attack on Parliamentary sovereignty, this tract helped to establish Wilson as a Whig leader. It was after the Revolution, however, that Wilson truly rose to the fore. Reflecting this fact, only three documents in this collection date from the 1770s. In contrast, five pieces focus on the 1780s debates surrounding the controversial Bank of North America and the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, two are speeches from 1789 and 1790 dealing with changes to the Pennsylvania state constitution, and five relate to Wilson's service as a federal judge. In addition, this collection includes a mid-1790s essay, "On the Improvement and Settlement of Lands in the United States," as well as an undated piece, "On the History of Property."

The bulk (two-thirds) of this edition is given over to Wilson's law lectures. In this respect, and in similar fashion to McCloskey's volumes, this collection sticks close to Bird Wilson's 1804 publication. It adds, however, a new introduction and bibliographical essay, McCloskey's translations of Latin phrases, additional annotations on individuals mentioned by Wilson, and McCloskey's bibliographical glossary. Also, some Wilson material appears here that was not printed in the previous collections. The two main additions are James Madison's notes on Wilson's contributions to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, and the "State House Yard Speech" that Wilson gave in Philadelphia on 6 October 1787. Reprinted throughout the colonies, the latter was, according to the historian Bernard Bailyn, "the most famous, to some the most notorious, federalist statement of the time."

Many scholars will use and enjoy this accessible and elegant edition.

John Dixon, California State University Channel Islands
Eighteenth-Century Scotland
Spring 2008

James Wilson -- 1742-1798 -- was one of the most important of America's founding fathers but is now one of the least-known. He was one of only a half-dozen who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (as well as helping craft the Constitution's first draft), but his influence was felt both before and after those seminal documents, as well. Fortunately, Liberty Fund has just published a set of his collected works, easing access to both his importance and his insights....Wilson has been called "one of the great American statesmen." It is worth reading his work to discover why. More important, it can help us rediscover what was truly revolutionary about America's experiment in liberty. His desire to "teach our children those principles upon which we ourselves have thought and acted" is especially valuable now, when most of what government does is to restrict liberty rather than defend it.

The Orange County Register
October 21, 2007

Kermit Hall argues that Wilson's lectures are a "genuinely systematic view of the law" (xiv) and a "serious contribution to the literature of the law that no student of its early national origins can ignore" (xv). He is certainly right. The added material makes the volumes even more valuable.

The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
January 2009