Saturday, December 5, 2009

Day 51-53: National Constitutional Treasure Hunt

I was not a Mormon at Oxford the week of Thanksgiving. Rather, I was a Mormon in Philadelphia and DC. The Philadelphia portion of my week I think is fit to publish here as it relates to my dissertation research. During this time, I spent my time reading and discovering the hand-written documents of the Founding Father who wrote the Constitution.

But I didn't study James Madison's documents, but James Wilson. James Wilson was an imminent, wealthy, Scottish-immigrant lawyer in Philadelphia who launched himself into the national dialogue about Independence in 1774, when he published a piece on British Sovereignty that made the young Jefferson pause and write it down.

Wilson was the second most verbose (in word length) speaker in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 behind James Madison and the second most frequent speaker behind Gouverneur (really and truly his first name - what were his parents thinking?) Morris, making him the most heard member of the convention overall.

He was also, I think, the most influential among his colleagues. Of him, fellow delegate William Pierce said the following:

Mr. Wilson ranks among the foremost in legal and political knowledge. He has joined to a fine genius all that can set him off and show him to advantage. He is well acquainted with Man, and understands all the passions that influence him. Government seems to have been his peculiar Study, all the political institutions of the World he knows in detail, and can trace the causes and effects of every revolution from the earliest stages of the Greecian commonwealth down to the present time. No man is more clear, copious, and comprehensive than Mr. Wilson, yet he is no great Orator. He draws the attention not by the charm of his eloquence, but by the force of his reasoning. He is about 45 years old.1

He was also nominated by the convention to participate on the prestigious Committee on Detail, an honor Madison did not receive, and was further selected in committee to draft the Constitution, an honor he performed with great alacrity, referencing all three plans presented in convention, Madison's Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, and even Hamilton's outlandish plan proposing a king. After several drafts and tries, he produced, after light edits from his co-committeemen, the Committee on Detail's August 6, 1787 Report to the convention.

This report, the eight skeletal resolutions referred to the committee (the work of the convention for the previous eight weeks of convention), and Wilson's drafts are found at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I was able to look at all of these precious documents very carefully and even find faults and needed edits to the current scholarly transcriptions made circa 1913 by Max Farrand at Yale (can you believe this hasn't been done since?). Further, in looking for the eight convention resolutions, I found an unmarked file in an unmarked box containing what appeared to be heretofore undiscovered notes made by Wilson during convention. Before alerting the staff to this important file so they might catalogue the documents, I took pictures to transcribe here at Oxford. Stay tuned for details as I transcribe these documents! I alerted my friend at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and, depending on what they contain, this could be big news!

I was also able to be the fourth scholar (ever!) to look at other Wilson documents and conclusively prove that Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England were universally used in legal teaching as early as 1790, an important link for TransAtlantic Constitutional History, as Blackstone represented not only the British legal system, but also the British Constitution, unwritten as it was (and is).

I left Philadelphia extremely grateful for the opportunity to look at these national constitutional treasures. I do hope that my research will make a substantial contribution to constitutional legal history for this new wonderful land and my ever-loved homeland.

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