James Wilson on British authority over America (1774)




James Wilson (1742-1798) was a Scottish-born Pennsylvania lawyer and a Founding Father of the United States. On the outbreak of revolution, he served as a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia and a member of the Continental Congress. Later, Wilson was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Wilson penned several pamphlets and essays on the revolution, most notably his 1774 work “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament”. In this extract, Wilson refutes British parliamentary authority over America, arguing that Americans are instead subjects of the Crown:



“From what source does this mighty, this uncontrolled authority of the House of Commons flow? From the collective body of the commons of Great Britain. This authority must, therefore, originally reside in them, for whatever they convey to their representatives must ultimately be in themselves.

And have those [Britons], whom we have hitherto been accustomed to consider as our fellow subjects, an absolute and unlimited power over us? Have they a natural right to make laws by which we may be deprived of our properties, of our liberties, of our lives? By what title do they claim to be our masters? What act of ours has rendered us subject to those to whom we were formerly equal? Is British freedom denominated from the soil or from the people of Britain? If from the latter, do they lose it by quitting the soil? Do those who embark as freemen in Great Britain disembark as slaves in America? Are those who fled from the oppression of regal and ministerial tyranny now reduced to a state of vassalage to those [left behind]? …

Those who launched into the unknown deep, in quest of new countries and habitations, still considered themselves subjects of the English monarchs and behaved suitably to that character; but it nowhere appears that they still considered themselves as represented in an English Parliament [or] that they thought the authority of the English Parliament extended over them. They took possession of the country in the King’s name; they treated or made war with the Indians by his authority; they held the lands under his grants and paid the rents reserved upon them; they established governments under the sanction of his prerogative or by virtue of his charters…

The colonists ought to be dependent on the King because they have hitherto enjoyed, and still continue to enjoy, his protection. Allegiance is the faith and obedience which every subject owes to his prince. This obedience is founded on the protection derived from government, for protection and allegiance are the reciprocal bonds which connect the prince and his subjects…

To the King is entrusted the direction and management of the great machine of government. He is fittest to adjust the different wheels [of government] and to regulate their motions… He makes war, he concludes peace, he forms alliances, he regulates domestic trade by his prerogative and directs foreign commerce by his treaties with those nations with whom it is carried on. He names the officers of government so that he can check every jarring movement in the administration. He has a [veto] on the different legislatures throughout his dominions so that he can prevent any repugnancy in their different laws.

The connection and harmony between Great Britain and us, which it is her interest and ours mutually to cultivate, and on which her prosperity, as well as ours, so materially depends, will be better preserved by the operation of the legal prerogatives of the Crown than by the exertion of an unlimited authority by Parliament.”

james wilson

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