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New Stanford research reexamines U.S. Constitution's story...

Jonathan Gienapp, assistant professor of history, teaches the course HISTORY 252: Originalism and the American Constitution: History and Interpretation.

(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)
Oct 24 2018

"How to interpret and apply the U.S. Constitution – a frequently debated issue – didn’t begin after the document’s framers were no longer alive to clarify their work. In fact, debates over what the Constitution means erupted immediately after it was created, shaping the way Americans view it today, according to new Stanford research.

Jonathan Gienapp, an assistant professor of history, has closely examined the debates of early U.S. lawmakers in the 1790s, a period that he said has been understudied by American history scholars. He hopes his research challenges the way people think about the Constitution.

“When most people think about the U.S. Constitution’s genesis, they usually think about when it was written and ratified,” Gienapp said. “But what I try to show is that the years after its creation did as much to give the Constitution the meaning it has today.”

Gienapp hopes his work will help inform current arguments about the Constitution, including debates about whether it should be viewed from a contemporary perspective or interpreted according to its original meaning, an idea known as constitutional originalism.

“My research helps contextualize the questions that I think originalism forces us to ask: What kind of thing is the Constitution? Does it evolve over time? Is it set in stone? How are we supposed to interpret it?” Gienapp said.

His research was recently published in a new book, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era.

The Stanford News Service interviewed Gienapp about his work."