From the Roman Republic to the American Revolution: readings of Cicero in the political thought of James Wilson
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As a classical scholar and prominent founding father, James Wilson was at once statesman, judge, and political thinker, who read Cicero as an example worthy of emulation and as a philosopher whose theory could be applied to his own age. Classical reception studies have focused on questions of liberty, civic virtue, and constitutionalism in the American founding, and historians have also noted Wilson’s importance in American history and thought. Wilson’s direct engagement with Cicero’s works, however, and their significance in the formulation of his own philosophy has been long overlooked. My thesis argues that Wilson’s viewpoint was largely based on his readings of Cicero and can only be properly understood within this context. In the first two chapters of my thesis I demonstrate that Wilson not only possessed a wide-ranging knowledge of the classics in general, but also that he borrowed from Cicero’s writings and directly engaged with the texts themselves. Building upon this foundation, chapters three and four examine Cicero’s perspective on popular sovereignty and civic virtue, situate Wilson’s interpretations within contemporary discussions of Roman politics, and analyse the main ways in which he adapts Cicero’s arguments to his own era. Wilson retains a broader faith in the common people than seen in Cicero’s opinions, and he abstracts from Cicero a doctrine of sovereignty as an indivisible principle that is absent in the text; nevertheless, Cicero’s conception of a legitimate state and his insistence on the role of the people provided the foundation for Wilson’s thought and ultimately for his legitimization of the American Revolution. At the same time, like Cicero, Wilson views the stability of the state as resting in the personal virtue of the individual. While his enlightenment philosophy imparts optimism to his conception of the good citizen, his definition of virtue closely follows that of Cicero. As the final chapter of my thesis concludes, their individual interpretations of these theories of popular consent and virtue were instrumental in forming Cicero’s and Wilson’s justifications of civil disobedience.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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