Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name




Committee Chair

Mackey, Thomas C., 1956-


Wilson, James, 1742-1798; Statesmen--United States--Biography; Constitutional history--United States; United States--Politics and government--1775-1783; United States--Politics and government--1783-1809


This essay is a biography and ideological interpretation of James Wilson. Wilson was an important member of the Revolutionary generation whom historians and political theorists too often overlook. Moving from the rise of historical interest in Wilson and reasons why Wilson deserves study, this essay tells the story of Wilson's ideological development from the opposition Whig struggles of the 1760s until his law lectures in 1790 and 1791. Originally willing to accept Lockean ideas of contractualism in the British constitution he, like many Americans, rejected such contractualism during the Revolution in favor of an un-transferrable popular sovereignty that could only convey instrumental powers. The American constitutions were instruments of the People, not contracta. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that Wilson's understanding of popular sovereignty, instrumentalism and, ultimately, the 1787 federal Constitution, was couched in a progressive vision of civil society. For Wilson, such concepts were not clever manipulations used to establish power and conservatism in government, but rather, appreciable discoveries drawn from the American experience.