Of Man, as a Member of Society, Lectures on Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“With regard to all, there is an equality in rights and in obligations . . . . The natural rights and duties of man belong equally to all.”

Summary Overview

Of Man, as a Member of Society is an excerpt from a lecture delivered by James Wilson in 1791 while he was a professor of law at the College of Philadelphia. In this lecture, Wilson addresses the idea that all individuals have certain natural rights and obligations that must be honored. He explains that the majority of a society can be allowed to bind the minority when making decisions because when one agrees to be part of a society, one also consents to abide by any actions necessary to maintain that society. Wilson also explains that inherited citizenship cannot be surrendered because each individual has a natural obligation to repay his country for any benefits received before he was capable of contributing to society.

Defining Moment

The early days of the United States of America were significant not only for establishing a new government, but also for creating an entirely new paradigm for how a government should operate. The American colonists had grown tired of feeling like their rights were being disregarded by their British rulers and struggled for decades before finally gaining independence through the Revolutionary War.

Given the origins of this newly independent nation, it is not surprising that an issue at the forefront of many debates was how to balance the rights of the individuals with the needs of society as a whole. Many of the formal complaints issued to Great Britain during the Revolution relied on the concept of “natural rights” to justify the colonists’ entitlement to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Now, the drafters of the documents for the newly formed United States had to contend with those same natural rights; they had argued for decades that these rights were of vital importance to the colonists, so now they had to create a new government that did not trample those rights as they claimed Great Britain had done.

As a professor of law and a justice of the United States Supreme Court, James Wilson recognized the tension between an individual’s natural rights and the needs of a civil society. In his lecture Of Man, as a Member of Society, he attempted to reconcile these competing interests and justify why it was sometimes permissible to restrict a man’s ability to freely pursue his own happiness if necessary to provide a stable existence for society as a whole. Wilson realized it would be a challenge to unite the American revolutionaries and convince them to submit to a new government whose policies and practices they might not always support; he hoped that he could at least encourage their compliance through careful appeals to their notions of fairness, as well as natural rights, duties, and obligations.

Author Biography

James Wilson was born in Scotland on September 14, 1742. He studied to become a Presbyterian minister at the universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh but left without completing a degree. In 1766, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and obtained a teaching position at the Academy and College of Philadelphia, which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania.

Wilson then studied law with attorney John Dickinson, who had gained notoriety among revolutionaries by writing Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer. Wilson officially joined the Pennsylvania Bar in 1767 but struggled to establish a practice within Philadelphia. Instead, he set up his practice first in Reading and then in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which at the time was near the westernmost border of the American colonies.

Wilson’s involvement with the revolution began with written pamphlets arguing against Great Britain’s controlling practices by citing the country’s violations of its own constitution. He served as a representative to the Continental Congress in 1776 and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he helped to write the first draft of the United States Constitution. He was widely recognized as being the most knowledgeable member of the assembly on matters of law, government, and politics. In 1789, Wilson was appointed one of the first justices of the United States Supreme Court by President George Washington. He also returned to teaching at the College of Philadelphia in 1790, where he was appointed to serve as the school’s first professor of law.

Unfortunately, Wilson was also notorious for his ongoing financial problems, which were the result of borrowing money to fund land speculation and other mostly unsuccessful business ventures. Despite serving as a Supreme Court justice, Wilson attempted to live his life in relative obscurity to avoid his creditors. His efforts were only partially successful, and he twice served time in prison for unpaid debts.

On August 21, 1798, James Wilson died of a stroke in Edenton, North Carolina, where he had allegedly fled to escape from creditors. He was buried at Hayes Plantation by his friend and fellow Supreme Court justice James Iredell, but his remains were moved to the Old Christ Church in Philadelphia in 1906 when a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt revitalized public interest in Wilson’s contributions to the early days of the United States.

Document Analysis

Wilson begins his lecture Of Man, as a Member of Society with the premise that “in civil society . . . all men are equal.” This does not imply that all individuals literally possess the same talents; he notes that there is actually a great deal of diversity among individuals and their capabilities. Wilson says this “diversity forms an important part of beauty,” for example by allowing different sciences to advance or enabling art, music, and poetry to exist. He argues that social happiness cannot exist without this diversity because, in order for a society to function, the individuals of that society must have different needs and wants and “different aptitudes to give and to receive.” In other words, everyone in society has needs and wants, and everyone must be capable of helping to fulfill someone else’s needs and wants. In order for this exchange to take place, individuals must have different capabilities.

However, Wilson argues that despite this diversity of interest and talent, it is vitally important to a civil society that “all men are equal” in two important respects: All individuals must have the same natural rights, and they must likewise have the same natural duties and obligations. The concept of natural law was common in legal philosophy for many centuries and refers to rights and obligations that are generally recognized by most people, regardless of their culture or government. The idea was to identify basic principles of ethics and morality that people would agree upon—regardless of their varying personal beliefs—and use those to justify the establishment of more specific rights and obligations that belong to all individuals in society.

As a result, natural laws are often invoked in discussions of justice and human rights where they are used to explain why individuals have a right to liberty, freedom, happiness, and other difficult-to-define concepts. The source of these laws is usually attributed to nature or the divine, so they allegedly apply to all individuals, regardless of how weak or powerful. However, as a result of their questionable origins, the existence and exact definition of natural laws have been debated by legal philosophers for centuries. Some, like Wilson, believe that such laws do exist, while others believe it is impossible to find any moral or ethical principle that absolutely everyone would agree upon. Still others suggest that while it might be possible to achieve theoretical agreement on a particular principle, there would still be too much disagreement on the practical application of that principle to make the concept of a natural law useful.

Regardless, Wilson believes that these natural laws include the individual’s inclination to provide for person happiness and for the happiness of those the individual cares about, such as family members. He argues that if this inclination really is the result of natural law, then an individual has a right to pursue this happiness as long as the person “does no injury to others; and provided some publick interests do not demand his labours.” By this statement, Wilson clarifies his belief that even natural rights have limits: Their exercise cannot interfere with the natural rights of other individuals and must be balanced with the needs of the whole. Additionally, Wilson believes that those who are wise “will use this liberty virtuously and honourably,” while those who are not may use it in a way that is dishonorable. However, he states that even those who are using this liberty in an unwise fashion should not be deprived of it if they are not harming others or violating the law. This emphasizes the importance of natural rights: Each individual must be allowed to exercise these rights, even if unwisely, as long as other individuals or society are not being harmed in the process.

Wilson then turns to the idea of natural duties and obligations to explain how people should behave in society. He notes that in situations where the beliefs of all members of a society are not unanimous, “the voice of the majority must be deemed the will of the whole.” In other words, where there is disagreement on the appropriate course of action, the majority opinion must be followed. This seems consistent with Wilson’s actions in the congresses and assemblies where he served as a representative. Wilson had earned a reputation for polling his constituency before making any binding decisions on their behalf, sometimes to the frustration of his fellow representatives. For example, even though Wilson personally supported the idea of American independence, he voted to postpone the Continental Congress’s vote on that matter so that he could return to Pennsylvania and consult with individuals under his jurisdiction.

Wilson recognizes that allowing for a majority rule can seem to contradict the idea of natural rights: If the will of the majority is acted upon, then that implies the existence of a minority that does not agree with the course of action but is nonetheless bound by that decision. However, Wilson explains that a functioning civil society requires a delicate balance of an individual’s natural rights and the needs of the greater whole. To justify this balance, he argues that when someone agrees to become part of a society, that individual implicitly consents to “every thing necessary for carrying it on.” In some instances, this will necessitate being bound to decisions that he or she does not personally agree with, if that decision is beneficial for the nation.

Wilson also notes that, as a practical matter, there are only three ways a society can make a decision: Require unanimous agreement, allow the majority to bind the minority, or allow the minority to bind the majority. While unanimous agreement might be ideal, it is highly impractical. Wilson argues that allowing the majority to bind the minority is preferable because it is more equitable than the alternative and is also more likely to result in a sound decision. However, it is certainly debatable whether the most popular decision is necessarily the best decision.

The idea of allowing majority rule was a central theme in debates about government structure and was particularly significant when resolving disputes that arose from joining the independent colonies to form the United States. Wilson mentions several actual questions that needed to be resolved, including whether a state has the right to prohibit individuals from moving out or moving in and whether individuals can renounce their citizenship if they so choose. The drafters of the Constitution were keenly aware of the importance of balancing the rights of the states with the need for a unifying federal government; they also recognized the need to assure people that individuals’ rights would be respected by both the state and the federal government. This was a difficult task that stretched the notion of rights and obligations in attempt to grant individuals and states as much autonomy as possible while also providing enough structure to hold the society together and achieve common goals.

Finally, Wilson addresses the issue of inherited citizenship. He reiterates that the legitimacy of a majority rule relies on the premise that each individual freely chose to associate himself with society and therefore implicitly consents to any action necessary for that society’s survival. However, he poses the question of whether individuals can legitimately make this decision on behalf of their children before the children are capable of giving their own explicit consent to be part of that society.

This was an important question at the time, as opinions on the recent American independence were still divided, and some people living in the former colonies did not want to be bound to the newly formed United States. The issue of citizenship was especially significant at this point in history because most governments demanded absolute loyalty; any act thought to be treasonous was usually punishable by death.

Wilson cites the long tradition of establishing citizenship through lineage and agrees with this idea by once again citing natural rights and obligations. He argues that the protections and advantages offered by a country are immediately conferred at birth. However, the newborn individual is too young to contribute to society and satisfy the obligations that go along with those rights and advantages. Therefore, once children reach adulthood and are able to fulfill those obligations, they owe obedience to the country that provided for them in their youth, as a “duty founded upon principles of gratitude” as well as “a debt, which nothing but the performance of the duties of citizenship, during a whole life, will discharge.” This position has been criticized on several grounds. Some cite natural rights to question the fairness of irrevocably binding an infant to lifelong citizenship in exchange for benefits that he or she did not voluntarily accept, while others instead criticized Wilson directly by noting that he received the benefit of being raised and educated in Scotland, only to relocate to the American colonies in his early twenties.

The ideas Wilson addressed in Of Man, as a Member of Society were significant during the early days of establishing the new government of the United States. Prior to independence, many of the official complaints issued to Great Britain about its treatment of the colonies cited natural rights to argue why the colonists should be allowed to freely assemble, make their own laws, and be tried by a jury of their peers. Now that the former colonists had the opportunity to create their own unifying government, it was vitally important that they abide by these same natural rights that they so vehemently accused King George III and Parliament of violating.

This was a key concern for Wilson in particular, as he was one of the first justices appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President George Washington. As the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court is frequently called on to resolve disputes about whether state or federal laws violate the provisions of the Constitution. As a justice and a professor of legal philosophy, it was important to Wilson that the Constitution—as well as its judicial enforcement—be consistent with previously cited legal principles, as well as with the intentions of the Founding Fathers when drafting the governing documents for the new nation.

The balance between individual rights and the needs of the whole also had practical implications in many early Supreme Court cases. One of Wilson’s most significant written opinions was for the 1793 case Chisholm v. State of Georgia, where a citizen tried to sue the state of Georgia in the Supreme Court for nonpayment of a bill for goods the state purchased during the Revolutionary War. The state of Georgia refused to appear, alleging that the Supreme Court should not have jurisdiction over a case where a state is being sued by an individual. This sparked a debate about how to ensure that state autonomy is preserved from federal control but not at the expense of individual rights.

The delicate balancing of the rights of individuals, the power and autonomy of states, and the need for a unifying federal government was a common theme during the Revolution and in the early days of the United States. In his lecture, Wilson expresses the importance of natural rights but also explains how and why a government can justify subrogating those rights when necessary to preserve civil society.

Essential Themes

In his law lecture Of Man, as a Member of Society, James Wilson discusses the idea of natural rights and obligations, and addresses the application of these ideas to the role of citizens in society. He asserts that a civil society must recognize that “all men are equal,” in the sense that they all have certain rights and obligations to the society of which they are a part. These are often referred to as natural laws, as they allegedly exist by virtue of the laws of nature and the divine and include those rights and obligations that all individuals would agree upon regardless of their religion, culture, or government.

Wilson explains why, despite the existence of natural law, it is sometimes acceptable to restrict an individual’s rights by requiring the minority be bound by the decisions of the majority in certain situations. He recognizes that this is necessary for practical reasons and argues that it is acceptable because, in consenting to be a part of a society, it is important to recognize that certain objectives must be accomplished in order for that society to continue. Likewise, this citizenship also implicitly means consenting to any actions necessary to meet those objectives, regardless of agreement with the particulars.

Wilson also explains citizenship cannot be surrendered in adulthood because of these same natural laws. Citizens receive the country’s protection and privileges immediately upon birth and are obligated to repay that debt once able to contribute to society. Wilson believes that the only way to repay this debt is through lifelong citizenship and allegiance.

These were important issues to address in the early days of the United States. The colonists frequently cited Great Britain’s violations of their natural rights to justify their struggle for independence, so it was vital that any new government within the colonies either recognized the supremacy of these rights or properly justified setting them aside in the name of the greater good. Questions of citizenship were also important, as most governments demanded nothing short of absolute loyalty; in the new United States, this was coupled with the special challenge of uniting revolutionaries under a new government.

  • Burnett, Edmund Cody. The Continental Congress. New York: Macmillan, 1941. Print.
  • Chisholm v. State of Georgia. 2 US 419. Supreme Court of the US. 1793. Cornell College Politics. Cornell College, 18 Aug. 1999. Web. 1 Aug. 2012.
  • Ewald, William. “James Wilson and the Drafting of the Constitution.” Journal of Constitutional Law 10.5 (2008): 901–1009. Print.
  • James Wilson and the American Constitution. Forum at the Online Library of Liberty. Liberty Fund, 2012. Web. 22 July 2012.
  • Kraynak, Robert P. Thomas Hobbes: From Classic Natural Law to Modern Natural Rights. Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism. Witherspoon Institute, 2012. Web. 22 July 2012.
  • St. John, Gerald J. “James Wilson: A Forgotten Father.” Philadelphia Lawyer 66.4 (2004). Web. 22 July 2012.
Additional Reading
  • America’s Founding Fathers: Delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Charters of Freedom at the National Archives, 2012. Web. 22 July 2012.
  • Hall, Mark David. The Political and Legal Philosophy of James Wilson, 17421798. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1997. Print.
  • Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. New York: Barnes, 1970. Print.
  • Wilson, James. Collected Works of James Wilson. 2 vols. Ed. Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall. Indianapolis: Liberty, 2007. Print.
  • Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Categories: History Content