James Wilson of Pennsylvania was one of six men who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. His contribution to the deliberations of the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 was second only to that of James Madison. He was also the principal draftsman of Pennsylvania’s own constitution of 1790.
Mr. Wilson was one of the original Justices of the Supreme Court as well as one of the first professors of law. He was widely regarded as the profoundest legal scholar of his generation.
More than other framers of the American Constitution, Wilson was a fervent advocate of democracy. His conception of democracy, however, or at least of what it means to vote in elections, differs significantly from that of the present age.
Let me first collate a few passages from his law lectures and speeches:
In a free country, every citizen forms a part of the sovereign power: he possesses a vote, or takes a still more active part in the business of the commonwealth. The right and duty of giving that vote, the right and duty of taking that share, are necessarily attended with the duty of making that business the object of his study and inquiry….
At every election, a number of important appointments must be made. To do this is, indeed, the business of a day. But it ought to be the business of much more than a day to be prepared for doing it well. When a citizen elects to office … he performs an act of the first political consequence. He should be employed, on every convenient occasion, in making researches after the proper persons for filling the different departments of power; in discussing, with his neighbours and fellow citizens, the qualities that should be possessed by those who fill the several offices; and in acquiring information, with the spirit of manly candour, concerning the manners, and history, and characters of those who are likely to be candidates for the publick choice. A habit of conversing and reflecting on these subjects, and of governing his actions by the result of his deliberations, will form, in the mind of the citizen, a uniform, a strong, and a lively sensibility to the interests of his country. The same cause will produce a warm and enlightened attachment [or representational bond] to those [representatives], who are best fitted and best disposed to support and advance those interests.
Wilson goes on to suggest the habit of citizens to candidly acquire information concerning the manners, history, and characters of candidates for public office, tends to raise the level of those elected and to exert a salutary influence on their official conduct if only because they want to be worthy of the honor accorded them by their fellow citizens (to say nothing of their desire to be re-elected).
We see that for Wilson, voting—electing someone to public office, a person whose conduct can affect the welfare of the commonwealth—is a moral act requiring rational inquiry and candid judgment. The right to vote in an election involves the duty of citizens to inquire into the character and experience of the candidates and to make a candid judgment as to which candidate is best qualified to serve the interests of the community.
Nowadays, liberals are ever talking about “rights” and hardly ever about “duties.” Wilson, however, was a classical liberal. He taught that man’s rights ultimately derive God, hence, that rights are correlative with duties. Accordingly, Wilson said that citizens should understand “that their duties rise in strict proportion to their rights,” and that the most solemn duty of a citizen, before exercising his right to vote for a particular candidate, is to devote “all the time, which he can prudently spare” to learn about that candidate’s character.
This is impossible in Israel, where citizens are compelled to vote for a party slate of 20 to 60 and even as many as 120 candidates, whose names do not appear on the ballots, and almost all of whom are unknown to the voter!