Semester of Graduation

Fall 2022


Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type



James Wilson played a pivotal role in shaping the American Presidency at the Constitutional Convention and had a political theory that is vital to understanding his tenure as a Supreme Court Justice and his lasting influence on the American Founding. However, Wilson’s commercial views have received less attention. Wilson’s Scottish upbringing influenced his formation as a commercial nationalist, which helps to explain his role as a Federalist who tended to downplay the role of the states in the new national government. Wilson’s optimistic opinions on human nature were augmented by his views on how national prosperity was best achieved under the kind of national economy that a unified country could provide. Overall, Wilson advocated commercial federal republicanism. With these ideals revealed, Wilson’s life and influence on the American Founding become clearer. One misunderstood aspect of Wilson’s views is how many historians characterize Wilson as the most democratic of the Founders. This is primarily due to Wilson’s advocacy for proportional representation in the Senate at the Constitutional Convention, as well as his preference for direct election of the president. However, this view is incomplete. Wilson, like many of the Founders, saw the dangers of mob rule and the dangers of a single tyrant. He concluded that basing the government on the consent of the people was the only legitimate basis for sovereignty. Nevertheless, tyranny of the majority could lead to mob rule. Therefore, Wilson still endorsed institutional safeguards, including a veto for the president and the power of judicial review for the courts, which are decidedly undemocratic practices. While he had a robust theory of government, Wilson sometimes engaged in sophistry, dismissing the concerns of his anti-federalist critics, and overlooking the dangers inherent in a more democratic regime in his rhetoric. His views on human nature were undermined by his own life experiences, and his theory did not always match his practice.



Committee Chair

Isenberg, Nancy



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