Right of Revolution

CHAPTER 3 | Document 13

James Wilson, Of the Study of the Law in the United States, Lectures on Law

1791Works 1:76--79

A question deeply interesting to the American States now presents itself. Should the elements of a law education, particularly as it respects publick law, be drawn entirely from another country--or should they be drawn, in part, at least, from the constitutions and governments and laws of the United States, and of the several States composing the Union?

The subject, to one standing where I stand, is not without its delicacy: let me, however, treat it with the decent but firm freedom, which befits an independent citizen, and a professor in independent states.

Surely I am justified in saying, that the principles of the constitutions and governments and laws of the United States, and the republicks, of which they are formed, are materially different from the principles of the constitution and government and laws of England; for that is the only country, from the principles of whose constitution and government and laws, it will be contended, that the elements of a law education ought to be drawn. I presume to go further: the principles of our constitutions and governments and laws are materially better than the principles of the constitution and government and laws of England.

Permit me to mention one great principle, the vital principle I may well call it, which diffuses animation and vigour through all the others. The principle I mean is this, that the supreme or sovereign power of the society resides in the citizens at large; and that, therefore, they always retain the right of abolishing, altering, or amending their constitution, at whatever time, and in whatever manner, they shall deem it expedient.

By Sir William Blackstone, from whose Commentaries, a performance in many respects highly valuable, the elements of a foreign law education would probably be borrowed--by Sir William Blackstone, this great and fundamental principle is treated as a political chimera, existing only in the minds of some theorists; but, in practice, inconsistent with the dispensation of any government upon earth.

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And yet, even in England, there have been revolutions of government: there has been one within very little more than a century ago. The learned Author of the Commentaries admits the fact; but denies it to be a ground on which any constitutional principle can be established.

If the same precise "conjunction of circumstances" should happen a second time; the revolution of one thousand six hundred and eighty eight would form a precedent: but were only one or two of the circumstances, forming that conjunction, to happen again; "the precedent would fail us."

The three circumstances, which formed that conjunction, were these: 1. An endeavour to subvert the constitution, by breaking the original contract between the king and people. 2. Violation of the fundamental laws. 3. Withdrawing out of the kingdom.

Now, on this state of things, let us make a supposition--not a very foreign one--and see the consequences, which would unquestionably follow from the principles of Sir William Blackstone. Let us suppose, that, on some occasion, a prince should form a conjunction of only two of the circumstances; for instance, that he should only violate the fundamental laws, and endeavour to subvert the constitution: let us suppose, that, instead of completing the conjunction, by withdrawing out of his government, he should only employ some forty or fifty thousand troops to give full efficacy to the two first circumstances: let us suppose all this--and it is surely not unnatural to suppose, that a prince, who shall form the two first parts of the conjunction, will not, like James the second, run away from the execution of them--let us, I say, suppose all this; and what, on the principles of Sir William Blackstone, would be the undeniable consequence? In the language of the Commentaries, "our precedent would fail us."

But we have thought, and we have acted upon revolution principles, without offering them up as sacrifices at the shrine of revolution precedents.

Why should we not teach our children those principles, upon which we ourselves have thought and acted? Ought we to instil into their tender minds a theory, especially if unfounded, which is contradictory to our own practice, built on the most solid foundation? Why should we reduce them to the cruel dilemma of condemning, either those principles which they have been taught to believe, or those persons whom they have been taught to revere?

It is true, that the learned Author of the Commentaries concludes this very passage, by telling us, that "there are inherent, though latent powers of society, which no climate, no time, no constitution, no contract can ever destroy or diminish." But what does this prove? not that revolution principles are, in his opinion, recognized by the English constitution; but that the English constitution, whether considered as a law, or as a contract, cannot destroy or diminish those principles.

It is the opinion of many, that the revolution of one thousand six hundred and eighty eight did more than set a mere precedent, even in England. But be that as it may: a revolution principle certainly is, and certainly should be taught as a principle of the constitution of the United States, and of every State in the Union.

This revolution principle--that, the sovereign power residing in the people, they may change their constitution and government whenever they please--is not a principle of discord, rancour, or war: it is a principle of melioration, contentment, and peace. It is a principle not recommended merely by a flattering theory: it is a principle recommended by happy experience. To the testimony of Pennsylvania--to the testimony of the United States I appeal for the truth of what I say.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 3, Document 13
The University of Chicago Press

The Works of James Wilson. Edited by Robert Green McCloskey. 2 vols. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

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