Sunday, May 5, 2013

James Wilson on Liberal Democratic Theory

That is small l liberal, small d democratic.

Hat tip to Bill Fortenberry for reminding me of this magnificent essay, done in 1774, by James Wilson which contains a passage that pithily summarizes the liberal democratic theory that undergirds the Declaration of Independence.

Wilson noted:
All men are, by nature, equal and free: no one has a right to any authority over another without his consent: all lawful government is founded on the consent of those who are subject to it: such consent was given with a view to ensure and to increase the happiness of the governed, above what they could enjoy in an independent and unconnected state of nature. The consequence is, that the happiness of the society is the first law of every government.c 
This rule is founded on the law of nature: it must control every political maxim: it must regulate the legislature itself.d The people have a right to insist that this rule be observed; and are entitled to demand a moral security that the legislature will observe it. If they have not the first, they are slaves; if they have not the second, they are, every moment, exposed to slavery. For “civil liberty is nothing else but natural liberty, devested of that part which constituted the independence of individuals, by the authority which it confers on sovereigns, attended with a right of insisting upon their making a good use of their authority, and with a moral security that this right will have its effect.”
Liberty and Equality, it should be noted, are the twin pillars of small l liberalism. 


Bill Fortenberry said...

I'm happy to be of service, Jon. By the way, there are many different views on the nature of liberal democratic theory, and I would love to learn more about your view in particular. Would you mind providing your definition of "liberal democratic theory"?

Jonathan Rowe said...

My analysis, I believe, is the one that prevails in the academy.

"democracy" simply means voting, or regular voting (as tyrants can be voted into office and then call off all further elections as not necessary) or some kind of majority rule to validate the system; "liberal" means certain rights are antecedent to majority rule and cannot be abridged by majorities.

I've oft-heard this canard coming from Christian Nationalists that America was founded to be a "republic" and not a "democracy." That assumes the two terms are mutually exclusive; they are not.

It's like saying either your are a Catholic or a Thomist. You can be both.

America was founded to be a democratic-republic.

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect most folks encounter James Wilson today only as he's depicted in the musical 1776, when his character's role is to provide tension within the Pennsylvania delegation as Benjamin Franklin and John Dickinson each try to win his vote on independence. The musical shows Wilson as wishy-washy and cowed. The real Wilson was a respected jurist involved in both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. His late adoption of independence seems to have been motivated by a wish to make sure his vote would reflect the sentiments of the part of Pennsylvania he represented. Definitely a man worth remembering accurately.