Founders and the Constitution
James Wilson (1742-1798)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of James Wilson. They will learn about his contribution to the system of presidential elections, the concept of popular sovereignty, and his views on punishment.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
Representative / Republican Government
Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
I will confess, indeed, that I am not a blind admirer of this plan of government, and that there are some parts of it which, if my wish had prevailed, would certainly have been altered. But when I reflect how widely men differ in their opinions, and that every man (and the observation applies likewise to every State) has an equal pretension to assert his own, I am satisfied that anything nearer to perfection could not have been accomplished. - James Wilson (1787)
James Wilson lived what one might call a double life. His formidable intellect, passion for politics, and willingness to fight for his beliefs made him one of the most influential leaders of his time. On the other hand, his penchant for land speculation left him a penniless fugitive by the end of his life.
The often-controversial lawmaker had a complicated relationship with his constituents. His home state of Pennsylvania recalled him from Congress in 1777 for vehemently opposing the form of the state constitution, only to restore him to office when no one was found to take his place. However, ten years later he was able to effectively persuade his fellow citizens to ratify the new United States Constitution (making Pennsylvania the second state to do so) after returning from the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Wilson’s Federalist views had been honed as a student of one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent lawyer-lawmakers, later in his own thriving legal practice, then finally as an influential member of the Second Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He later served as an Associate Justice on the first Supreme Court.
His contemporaries, including President George Washington, saw in him a great talent, but they sensed that his outspoken manner and poor financial decisions had tarnished his reputation by the end of his career in politics. Nevertheless, Wilson’s dedication to the philosophy of popular sovereignty was vital to the shaping and ratification of the United States Constitution, to the structure of the executive branch, and to our system of presidential election.
In this lesson, students will learn about James Wilson. They should first read as homework Handout A—James Wilson (1742–1798) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to those in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: James Wilson On Cruel and Unusual Punishment in which Wilson charges a grand jury to remember what he considers the proper goals and nature of punishment. As a preface, there is Handout B— Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help students understand the document. Finally, students should complete Handout D—Analysis: James Wilson on Cruel and Unusual Punishment.
There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask the students to read fellow Founders Thomas Jefferson’s and Benjamin Rush’s writings on the proper nature of jurisprudence and compare their ideas to Wilson’s. Extensions asks students to research death penalty statistics and take a position on whether the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection from “cruel and unusual punishment,” or to write their own “charge to the grand jury” as if they were judges instructing jurors deciding the sentence of a convicted murderer.
- explain James Wilson’s contribution to the system of presidential elections.
- understand the concept of popular sovereignty and apply it to their own experiences as Americans.
- understand the significance of Wilson’s 1787 Pennsylvania State House speech.
- analyze the arguments about punishment Wilson presents in his “Charge to the Grand Jury” (1791).
- evaluate punishment scenarios from modern society in terms of Wilson’s main ideas.
- Handout A—James Wilson (1742–1798)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: James Wilson On Cruel and Unusual Punishment
- Handout D—Analysis: James Wilson on Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Additional Teacher Resources
- Transparency Master A: Cruel and Unusual?
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IID3, VB1
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—James Wilson (1742–1798) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of James Wilson.
James Wilson signed the Declaration of Independence. At the Constitutional Convention, he spoke out for popular sovereignty and is credited with forcing the compromise of the Electoral College. He was a Supreme Court Justice and the University of Pennsylvania’s first professor of law.
Context 5 min.
Write the Eighth Amendment on the board or overhead: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Tell the students that James Wilson wrote the “Charge to the Grand Jury” while serving as a Supreme Court Justice as well as the University of Pennsylvania’s first professor of law in 1791. This essay reveals Wilson’s attitude about the proper nature of punishment.
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Make a transparency of Transparency Master A and put it on the overhead with a sheet of paper covering all but the first statement. Read the statement to the class, and ask for a show of hands as to whether the statement reflects “cruel and unusual” punishment.
- Continue one statement at a time with the remaining statements, and allow student discussion on the varying opinions of the definition of “cruel and unusual.”
- Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions and Handout C—In His Own Words: James Wilson on Cruel and Unusual Punishment.
- Ask a student who is a strong reader to stand up and read Wilson’s address to the class (as though the other students are the grand jury).
- Have students work in pairs to complete Handout B.
- Distribute Handout D—Analysis: James Wilson on Cruel and Unusual Punishment and have students, still in their pairs, complete the chart.
- Go over the chart as a class.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
Conduct a large group discussion about what the Eighth Amendment protects. What makes a punishment “cruel and unusual”? What is the nature of “cruelty”? When is a punishment “unusual”? Can either of these definitions ever change?
Follow-Up Homework Options
Have students read the following two contemporary perspectives on crime and punishment:
- Thomas Jefferson’s “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments” (1778) <http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendVIIIs10.html>.
- Benjamin Rush’s “On Punishing Murder by Death” (1792) <http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendVIIIs16.html>.
After reading, have students answer the following questions:
- Would James Wilson object to Jefferson’s list of penalties? Explain.
- Do you agree with Rush that “the punishment of murder by death, is contrary to reason, and to the order and happiness of society”? Would James Wilson agree? Explain.
- What did Rush mean when he said, “An execution in a republic is like a human sacrifice in religion”?
- Write a paragraph explaining which person you believe has the best philosophy of justice: Wilson, Jefferson, or Rush.
- Have students research and report to the class about the application of the death penalty in the United States. After reporting data such as death penalty statistics by state, as well as the legality of the death penalty in other countries, ask students to write a three-paragraph essay explaining whether they believe the death penalty should be allowed under the Eighth Amendment.
- Ask students to write their own “charge to the grand jury” as if they were judges instructing jurors deciding the sentence of a convicted murderer. Their “charges” should include the goal(s) of punishment, the proper nature of punishment, and examples of unjust punishments.
- Have students research Supreme Court decisions involving the death penalty, such as Furman v. Georgia (1972), Gregg v. Georgia (1976), or Roper v. Simmons (2005).
Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. Fort Washington: Harvest Books, 2003.
“A Charge Delivered to the Grand Jury. Lecture on Law: Judicial Authority.” The University of Chicago Press and The Liberty Fund. <http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendVIIIs15.html>.
“Lecture on Law: Judicial Authority.” The University of Chicago Press and The Liberty Fund. <http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a3_1s15.html>.
Pennsylvania State House Speech, 1787. The Constitution Society. <http://www.constitution.org/afp/jwilson0.htm>.
Biography of James Wilson. <http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/wilson.htm>.
By James Wilson
- Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament (1774)
- State House Speech (1787)
- Chisholm v. Georgia (1793)
- Handout A: James Wilson (1742–1798)
- Handout B: Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C: In His Own Words: James Wilson On Cruel and Unusual Punishment
- Handout D: Analysis: James Wilson on Cruel and Unusual Punishment
- Thematic Essays