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James Wilson (1742-1798)

60 min

Students will:

  • explain James Wilson’s contribution to the system of presidential elections.
  • understand the concept of popular sovereignty and apply it to their own experiences as Americans.
  • understand the significance of Wilson’s 1787 Pennsylvania State House speech.
  • analyze the arguments about punishment Wilson presents in his “Charge to the Grand Jury” (1791).
  • evaluate punishment scenarios from modern society in terms of Wilson’s main ideas.

Ask students to read Handout A—James Wilson (1742–1798) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of James Wilson.

    James Wilson signed the Declaration of Independence. At the Constitutional Convention, he spoke out for popular sovereignty and is credited with forcing the compromise of the Electoral College. He was a Supreme Court Justice and the University of Pennsylvania’s first professor of law.

  1. Make a transparency of Transparency Master A and put it on the overhead with a sheet of paper covering all but the first statement. Read the statement to the class, and ask for a show of hands as to whether the statement reflects “cruel and unusual” punishment.
  2. Continue one statement at a time with the remaining statements, and allow student discussion on the varying opinions of the definition of “cruel and unusual.”
  3. Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions and Handout C—In His Own Words: James Wilson on Cruel and Unusual Punishment.
  4. Ask a student who is a strong reader to stand up and read Wilson’s address to the class (as though the other students are the grand jury).
  5. Have students work in pairs to complete Handout B.
  6. Distribute Handout D—Analysis: James Wilson on Cruel and Unusual Punishment and have students, still in their pairs, complete the chart.
  7. Go over the chart as a class.

Conduct a large group discussion about what the Eighth Amendment protects. What makes a punishment “cruel and unusual”? What is the nature of “cruelty”? When is a punishment “unusual”? Can either of these definitions ever change?

Have students read the following two contemporary perspectives on crime and punishment:

After reading, have students answer the following questions:

  1. Would James Wilson object to Jefferson’s list of penalties? Explain.
  2. Do you agree with Rush that “the punishment of murder by death, is contrary to reason, and to the order and happiness of society”? Would James Wilson agree? Explain.
  3. What did Rush mean when he said, “An execution in a republic is like a human sacrifice in religion”?
  4. Write a paragraph explaining which person you believe has the best philosophy of justice: Wilson, Jefferson, or Rush.

  1. Have students research and report to the class about the application of the death penalty in the United States. After reporting data such as death penalty statistics by state, as well as the legality of the death penalty in other countries, ask students to write a three-paragraph essay explaining whether they believe the death penalty should be allowed under the Eighth Amendment.
  2. Ask students to write their own “charge to the grand jury” as if they were judges instructing jurors deciding the sentence of a convicted murderer. Their “charges” should include the goal(s) of punishment, the proper nature of punishment, and examples of unjust punishments.
  3. Have students research Supreme Court decisions involving the death penalty, such as Furman v. Georgia (1972), Gregg v. Georgia (1976), or Roper v. Simmons (2005).

Student Handouts

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