The Public Interest

Taking virtue seriously

Walter Berns

Summer 1997

IN 1790-91, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson delivered a series of lectures on the law at what was to become the University of Pennsylvania and before an audience that included President George Washington, Vice President John Adams, and a “galaxy of other republican worthies, some with their ladies at their sides.” Although little honored and almost forgotten today, Wilson played a major role in the founding of this nation. He was one of only six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a key figure in the drafting of the Constitution and in its ratification by his state of Pennsylvania, the principal author of that state’s constitution, and, reputedly, the most learned and profound legal scholar of his generation. I mention these biographical details only to suggest that Wilson, when speaking on the law, might be said to be speaking for the Founders generally. 

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