Jonathan Gienapp

Jonathan Gienapp is an assistant professor in the History department. He is a scholar of Revolutionary and early republican America specializing in the period’s constitutionalism, political culture, legal history, and intellectual history. He is also interested in the method and practice of the history of ideas.

His first book, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (Harvard University Press, Belknap, 2018), rethinks the conventional story of American constitutional creation by exploring how and why founding-era Americans’ understanding of their Constitution transformed in the earliest years of the document’s existence. It investigates how early political debates over the Constitution’s meaning helped alter how Americans imagined the Constitution and its possibilities, showing how these changes created a distinct kind of constitutional culture, the consequences of which endure to this day. It won the 2017 Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize from Harvard University Press and the 2019 Best Book in American Political Thought Award from the American Political Science Association and was a finalist for the 2019 Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians. In addition, it was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2019 and a Spectator USA Book of the Year for 2018. It has been reviewed in The Nation, was the subject of a symposium at Balkinization, and was chosen for the 2019 Publius Symposium co-hosted by the Stanford Constitutional Law Center and the Stanford Center for Law and History. He wrote about some of the book’s central themes in an op-ed for the Boston Globe, and has discussed the book on “New Books in History,” “The Age of Jackson Podcast,” and “Law’s Dimensions,” as well as in interviews for The Way of Improvement Leads Home and the Harvard University Press Blog.

He has lectured widely on the original Constitution. Among other appearances, he discussed the document’s history in an episode of the podcast, “Writ Large,” and participated in a National Constitution Center Town Hall, “The Founders’ Library: Intellectual Sources of the Constitution.”

Gienapp has also written on a range of related topics pertaining to early American constitutionalism, politics, and intellectual history, originalism and modern constitutional theory, and the study of the history of ideas. He has published articles and book chapters in a host of venues, including the Journal of the Early RepublicLaw and History ReviewThe New England Quarterly, and Constitutional Commentary. He recently co-organized, and contributed to, a symposium for the Fordham Law Review entitled “The Federalist Constitution” that explores the oft-overlooked constitutional ideas of the nationalist-minded politicians and jurists who initially held power and influence at the time of the Constitution’s creation.

He has written extensively on the relationship between history and constitutional originalism, including in two essays that appeared on Process: A Blog for American History, published by the Organization of American Historians. He is currently completing a book (under contract with Yale University Press) that presents a comprehensive historical critique of originalism. It argues that recovering Founding-era American constitutionalism on its own terms fundamentally challenges originalists’ unspoken assumptions about the Constitution. For a preview, see his article, “Written Constitutionalism, Past and Present,” published in Law and History Review, which was identified as one of the best works of recent scholarship in constitutional law in a review at Jotwell.

Gienapp is at work on another book on the forgotten history of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. It tells the story of the Preamble’s early vitality and eventual descent into political and legal irrelevance as a way of exploring the broader struggle over popular sovereignty and national union in the early United States. It probes the often entwined debates over popular rule, sovereignty, federalism, and constitutionalism in the nation’s earliest years to understand the full meanings of the Constitution’s opening words: “We the People of the United States.” Central to this project is the recovery of a distinct, yet forgotten, vision of constitutionalism that predominated at the American Founding and treated the Preamble as the central feature of the Constitution. It was most vigorously championed by the leading constitutional framers, James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris. Even though Wilson and Morris are largely unknown today, no two delegates to the Constitutional Convention played a more significant role in shaping the final Constitution, and in the years immediately following the Convention their particular conception of the Constitution was influential. Over the course of the 1790s and beyond, however, their vision was quietly supplanted and eventually lost. Bringing their Constitution back into focus and understanding both its original vitality as well as how and why it disappeared offers an unfamiliar and revealing account of Founding-era constitutionalism.

Gienapp is accepting graduate students who are interested in working on all aspects of the early United States. More information on the department’s graduate program in United States history, designed to answer most common questions about the application process and the current state of the program, can be found here.

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