Benjamin Franklin was one of them, whom many might guess. But not all of the seemingly likely choices — such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — are accurate. In fact, these three signed only the Declaration. George Washington, on the other hand, signed only the Constitution. But another of the Founders who signed both is James Wilson, who was highly influential in the framing of the Constitution and who served as one of the original justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, appointed by Washington. One way in which Wilson was of such great influence was his theory about how certain rights are natural rights: rights that are founded in the nature of men and women and precede government altogether. Such, for example, are the "inalienable rights" spoken of in the Declaration, which are "endowed by [the] Creator." In his Lectures on Law, Wilson asked:
What was the primary and principal object in the institution of government? Was it... to acquire new rights by a human establishment? Or was it, by a human establishment, to acquire a new security for the possession or the recovery of those rights, to the enjoyment or acquisition of which we were previously entitled by the immediate gift, or by the unerring law, of our all-wise and all-beneficent Creator?Wilson went on to answer his own question by affirming the second case: government is primarily devised to protect and secure the rights that belong to mankind by nature, rather than to acquire new rights. Wilson firmly held that government should always uphold these natural rights, and could never legitimately create any "right" if it ran counter to natural law. Wilson also wrote that the best governments are those that "are frequently renewed or drawn back to their first principles." Taking Wilson's advice, then, I'd like to consider what he — one of the framers of the Constitution and one of its first interpreters on the Supreme Court — might have thought about the social and legal experiment of redefining marriage. And let's not forget that Wilson's views are actually rather typical of the other, better-known Founders who signed only one of our two foundational documents. Elsewhere in the same Lectures on Law, after explaining his whole general theory of the relation between natural rights and the State, Wilson chooses to speak about "those peculiar relations, by virtue of which a man is entitled to the enjoyment of peculiar rights, and obliged to the performance of peculiar duties." And what is the very first and foremost of these "peculiar relations" that Wilson chooses to address? Marriage. Marriage which, Wilson writes, "forms the near relation of husband and wife." Let me share some quotations from what Wilson has to say about marriage:
Whether we consult the soundest deductions of reason, or resort to the best information conveyed to us by history, or listen to the undoubted intelligence communicated in holy writ, we shall find, that to the institution of marriage the true origin of society must be traced. By that institution the felicity of Paradise was consummated; and since the unhappy expulsion from thence, to that institution, more than to any other, have mankind been indebted for the share of peace and harmony which has been distributed among them. "Prima societas in ipso conjugio est [the first (bond) of society is marriage]" says Cicero in his book of offices; a work which does honour to the human understanding and the human heart.Wilson goes on immediately to say, "The most ancient traditions of every country ascribe to its first legislators and founders, the regulations concerning the union between the sexes." [Note that, for Wilson, "marriage" and "the union between the sexes" are synonymous; and also, that regulating this union is why marriage is a first and chief concern for a State.] He writes beautifully of "the profound respect, which... was paid" throughout history "to the conjugal union." He notes that this hasn't only consisted in regulating marriage, but also in celebrating and honoring marriage. And why was marriage to be so honored? Because of its relation to children! Wilson again:
As marriage has been instituted by the first, it has always been encouraged by the wisest legislators. By the law of Moses, a man, during one year after his marriage, was exempted from publick burthens, and from going to war. [...] The jus trium liberorum, introduced by the prudent policy of Augustus, was a permanent inducement to matrimony at Rome.Marriage, Wilson recognized, was a positive value for a society, and thus it was only just for government to recognize married men and women as contributing. That's what the "jus trium liberorum" was all about. Literally, "the right of three children," it was a law that tried to incentivize child-bearing and child-rearing within the family since new citizens were seen as an asset to the empire. Given all of this, it is a virtual certainty that James Wilson — or any other of our Founders — would never have seen redefining marriage as something government even could do, and much less as something government should do. What, then, would Wilson remind us if he were able to address us today in our present predicament where this beautiful and foundational institution is under such constant and wide-ranged attack? Wilson would probably remind us that our Republic was designed to give a majority of power to the people. He would remind us that we the people are the foundation of our great nation, and we might fight to preserve it and stand up to steer it right when those elected or appointed to govern are making a mess of things. Wilson wrote:
The pyramid of government... should be raised to a dignified altitude: but its foundations must, of consequence, be broad, and strong, and deep. The authority, the interests, and the affections of the people at large are the only foundation, on which a superstructure, proposed to be at once durable and magnificent, can be rationally erected.On this birthday of our great nation, let's remember that the foundation of our country remains strong and noble, however weak and fickle our leadership and cultural elites may be. As it was when James Wilson lived and wrote, we the people remain our nation's most vital asset for prosperity and greatness, and our amazing founding documents — especially the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — remain sure and certain guides to inform and inspire us. And, too, as Wilson would affirm not only is our national origin traced to the vital and beautiful institution of marriage, but our nation's future is likewise dependent on its preservation. I hope the words of one of our Founding Fathers have been encouraging and enlightening for you today. Have a safe and blessed Independence Day, and may God bless the United States of America! Faithfully,
|Brian S. Brown President National Organization for Marriage|
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