Unlocking Constitutional Meaning: James Wilson as the Key
Date & Time
Wed, Feb 08, 2023 • 3:00 pm
JWI, CRCD, the Jack Miller Center, and the Civitas Institute

Jonathan Gienapp of Stanford University and John Mikhail of Georgetown University Law Center joined JWI Founder & Director Hadley Arkes for a webinar on how James Wilson shaped our understanding of several notable areas of our constitutional life. From directly drawing the contours of executive power at the Constitutional Convention to his embrace of moral reasoning as legal reasoning, Wilson was the key to understanding fully the system of government the Founders brought forth.

Hadley Arkes in the opening pages to his seminal work, First Things, noted how James Wilson led us back to the deep moral ground of the Constitution in his opinion in Chisholm v. Georgia, offering one of the first lessons the Court would teach.

“In 1793, in the first case that brought forth a substantial opinion from our Supreme Court, Justice James Wilson recognized that the Court could not appeal to any precedents built up from its own cases, and so he found it necessary to speak first about “the principles of general jurisprudence.” But before he and his colleagues would begin setting forth the principles of legal judgment, he found it necessary to acknowledge something of the laws of reason and the grounds of our moral understanding. Before Wilson would invoke the authority of any case at law or any writer on matters legal, he would invoke the authority of ‘Dr. [Thomas] Reid, in his excellent enquiry into the human mind, on the principles of common sense, speaking of the sceptical and illiberal philosophy, which under bold, but false pretentions to liberality, prevailed in many parts of Europe before he wrote.’ In other words, the Court would ascend to the task of judgment only after it insisted, in the first instance, that it was indeed possible to judge: the Court would reject that “skepticism” in philosophy which denied the possibility of “knowing” moral truths, just as it denied the possibility of “knowing” almost anything else.



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