In terms of his contributions to American politics, James Wilson had a numerous and diverse array of positions over the span of his political career, which helped him to serve as a valuable decision-maker with diverse perspective in the most defining era of American history. As a Federalist, Wilson was one of the key opponents of the Bill of Rights, as well as one of the leading statesmen of his time. He was also one of the original appointed officials in the U.
S. Supreme Court, as chosen by George Washington. Wilson was one of the six signers of the Declaration of Independence as well as the US Constitution, a fact which indicates the clear distinction he personally made between the functions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and made him an essential philosophical voice of his time.
Although Wilson had some inherently contradictory ideas pertaining to the relationship between the U.S. Constitution and a potential bill of rights to accompany it, Wilson’s most essential arguments about the creation of such a bill are quite clear and succinct.
Wilson believed that the government should be a system that functioned for the people, rather than a body that citizens are required to be controlled by without consent, as in Great Britain. Thus, Wilson’s main concern with a bill of rights was that it would not uphold a commitment to popular sovereignty, but instead be seen as an unchangeable set of rules that the people were required to submit to.
Wilson believed it was the right of each generation to modify what would protect their ‘individual natural rights’ as human beings as the scope and size of their knowledge of natural rights expanded with time; yet the creation of the Bill of Rights would limit this ability. Instead, Wilson believed that the protection of natural rights was “better left to the vicissitudes of the ordinary political process rather than to constitutional enumeration” (Zink, 6). Essentially, the Constitution was meant to address the rights of the people in a vague, broad way for a reason—to explicitly dictate such rights in a bill would be to deter future generations from critically analyzing and reforming them, thus creating a “general grant of power” to government outside of the lines set in the constitution (Zink, 4).
In my opinion, the fact that disputes over the ability to modify the Bill of Rights are ongoing today indicates that Wilson did indeed relay some truths about the inherent faults of the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. Just as both he and Thomas Jefferson predicted, with each succeeding generation the likelihood of people questioning such fundamental pieces of American law has diminished. As Wilson states on pages six and seven, most Americans are not particularly schooled in the workings of law, and thus look to the most familiar documents in an acquiescent manner. Yet, when the people do choose to speak out, such as in the current debate over gun control, the ability to remove a bill from the Bill of Rights has proven just about impossible. I do believe that the Bill of Rights has discouraged individuals from exerting their sovereign power in many ways, then. Although the American concept of citizenship explicitly emphasizes freedom, there have been very few instances in which the Bill of Rights has been challenged in terms of its relevancy and justification. Only the 2nd Amendment, or the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” has stirred up enough controversy in recent years to result in uproar from the people and go so far as to induce a filibuster within the Senate and small additive regulations to gun control.
Thus, although Wilson’s beliefs on the creation of the Bill of Rights has been largely overlooked, his opinions are ones founded in legitimate concern and that ring true in some major aspects even today. Wilson’s question of if the government is an entity working for the people, or if it is one that largely controls the people, is still very much unanswered today.