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James Wilson Institute: Unlocking Constitutional Meaning – James Wilson as the Key

February 8, 2023 @ 3:00 pm - 4:00 pm

On February 8, 2023, the James Wilson Institute and the Civitas Institute of the University of Texas at Austin will be holding an interactive webinar with John Mikhail and JMC fellow Jonathan Gienapp on James Wilson and his important contributions to constitutional law.

Jonathan Gienapp of Stanford University and John Mikhail of the Georgetown University Law Center will join 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.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2023 • 3:00 PM EST
An interactive webinar • James Wilson Institute

Free and open to the public – registration required.

Click here to learn more and to RSVP >>



John Mikhail is the Carroll Professor of Jurisprudence at Georgetown University Law Center, where he has taught since 2004.  He teaches and writes on a variety of topics, including constitutional law, moral psychology, moral and legal theory, cognitive science, legal history, criminal law, torts, international law, and human rights.

Professor Mikhail is the author of Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls’ Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback edition, 2013) and over forty articles, essays, and chapters in peer-edited journals, law reviews, and anthologies, including Ethics, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Mind & Language, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Cognitive Science, Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies, Law and History Review, Constitutional Commentary, Stanford Law Review, Virginia Law Review, Georgetown Law Journal, and Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy.

Learn more about John Mikhail >>



Jonathan GienappJonathan Gienapp is an Assistant Professor in the History department of Stanford University. He received his B.A. from Harvard University and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. Principally a scholar of Revolutionary and early republican America, he is particularly interested in the period’s constitutionalism, political culture, and intellectual history. More generally, he is interested in the method and practice of the history of ideas.

Gienapp has also written on a range of related topics pertaining to early American constitutionalism and interpretation, early national political culture, originalism and modern constitutional theory, and the study of the history of ideas. He has written several books and published articles and essays in the Journal of the Early Republic, The New England Quarterly, the Fordham Law Review, Constitutional Commentary, the Texas Law Review Online, the American University Law Review Forum, Process: A Blog for American History, and an edited volume on neo-nullification and secession in American constitutional culture. He has articles forthcoming in Law and History Review and an edited volume on the early American presidency.

Professor Gienapp is a Jack Miller Center fellow.

Learn more about Jonathan Gienapp >>



The James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding aims to restore to a new generation of lawyers, judges, and citizens the understanding of the American Founders about the first principles of our law and the moral grounds of their own rights.

A private, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the Institute is devoted to the study, spread, and further understanding of natural rights. Founded by Prof. Hadley Arkes, his former students, and alumni of Amherst College in 2000, the Institute was formerly known as the Foundation for Classical Studies in Statecraft and Jurisprudence. It supports events such as the James Wilson Fellowship, an annual weeklong seminar for a select group of young appellate lawyers and law students, and the James Wilson Senior Seminar, a semi-annual conference bringing together accomplished federal judges and gifted teachers of philosophy and law who have wanted to get a firmer hold on the natural law. In 2013, the Institute established a presence in Washington and assumed its present name.

Learn more about the James Wilson Institute >>



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February 8, 2023
3:00 pm - 4:00 pm
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