Before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and eminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But though the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines. For what is now left of the ‘ancient customs’ one which he said ‘the commonwealth of Rome’ was ‘founded firm’? They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown. And what shall I say of the men? For the loss of our customs is due to our lack of men, and for this great evil we must not only give an account, but must even defend ourselves in every way possible, as if we were accused of capital crime. For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the form of the commonwealth, but have long since lost its substance.
Some of my favorite quotes from the lectures of James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, delivered at what is now the University of Pennsylvania, 1790-1791.
“Government, in my humble opinion, should be formed to secure and to enlarge the exercise of the natural rights of its members; and every government, which has not this in view, as its principal object, is not a government of the legitimate kind.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1061]
“In his unrelated state, man has a natural right to his property, to his character, to liberty, and to safety. From his peculiar relations, as a husband, as a father, as a son, he is entitled to the enjoyment of peculiar rights, and obliged to the performance of peculiar duties. These will be specified in their due course. From his general relations, he is entitled to other rights, simple in their principle, but, in their operation, fruitful and extensive. His duties, in their principle and in their operation, may be characterized in the same manner as his rights. In these general relations, his rights are, to be free from injury, and to receive the fulfillment of the engagements, which are made to him: his duties are, to do no injury, and to fulfil the engagements, which he has made. On these two pillars principally and respectively rest the criminal and the civil codes of the municipal law. These are the pillars of justice.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1062]
“Under some aspects, character may be considered as a species of property; but, of all, the nearest, the dearest, and the most interest. . . . By the exertion of the same talents and virtues, property and character both are often acquired: by vice and indolence, both are often lost or destroyed. The love of reputation and the fear of dishonour are, by the all-gracious Author of our existence, implanted in our breasts, for purposes the most beneficent and wise.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1063]
“But to that honour, whose connexion with virtue is indissoluable, a republic government produces the most unquestionable title. The principle of virtue is allowed to be hers: if she possesses virtue, she also possesses honour.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1065]
“It is unwarrantable to bestow reputation where it is not due.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1066]
“Property must often–reputation must always be purchased: liberty and life are the gratuitous gifts of heaven.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1066]
“With consistency, beautiful and undeviating, human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law. In the contemplation of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb. By the law, life is protected not only from immediate destruction, but from every degree of actual violence, and, in some cases, from every degree of danger.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1068]
“Slavery, or an absolute and unlimited power, in the master, over the life and fortune of the slave, is unauthorized by the common law. Indeed, it is repugnant to the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist in any social system.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1077]
“As a man is justified in defending, so he is justified in retaking, his property, or his peculiar relations, when from him they are unjustly taken and detained.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1083]
The above, all taken from James Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals” in Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, eds., Collected Works of James Wilson (Indianapolis, Ind: Liberty Fund, 2007), vol. 2.
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