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06 March 2013

The Voice of God Within Us

I'm still working on studying the Constitution. I think it's a project that's going to last a very long time before I feel like I have a solid understanding. Maybe if I could sit down and study it intensively for a month or two that would be different, but I can't do that; I squeeze it in during quiet times and after bedtime. Anyway. I'm reading Ratifying the Constitution, edited by Gillespie and Lienesh, and I'm really enjoying it. Not only am I learning a lot about the various States that formed our union, I'm also learning a bit more about some of the principle personalities in each State. Today I found this quote from James Wilson as I'm reading about the "radically democratic" State constitution that Pennsylvania put into place in 1776. Turns out a number of big names were involved in writing that document, including Benjamin Franklin, according to the blurb I read. That was a revelation to me: not only were the men who wrote the US Constitution experienced statesmen, at least some of them had been involved in writing constitutions prior to the convention in Philadelphia, and so were experienced in that way as well. I don't know if James Wilson was among the crowd that wrote the constitution of 1776, but he was involved in the Pennsylvania ratification debates, and the little bit this book tells me about him makes me want to know more.

His commitment to popular sovereignty was fundamental. ... For Wilson, public issues were always moral issues, grounded in a deep moral sense, the moral equivalent of first principles. Morality was God given and hence instinctual. In this regard it was the most fundamental of our senses, reaching beyond the physical, the rational, and the emotional. "Our instincts," Wilson declared, "are no other than the oracles of eternal wisdom; our conscience... is the voice of God within us." This moral sense was present, or at least potentially present, in all persons, strong or weak, educated or uneducated, propertied or propertyless. "All sound reasoning," he wrote, echoing Reid, "must rest ultimately on the principles of common sense." Because this "common" sense was available to all, even "common" men could act as valuable and responsible citizens of a republic. It was a view of human nature that was neither optimistic, like that of Jefferson, nor pessimistic, like that of his fellow Federalist John Adams, but realistic; and it led Wilson to argue on every occasion for the broadest possible base for eh government of the United States and of Pennsylvania." (Ratifying the Constitution, page 56)

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