Jonathan Gienapp is an assistant professor in the History department. 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 specializes in the period’s constitutionalism, political culture, legal history, and intellectual history. More generally, he is interested in the method and practice of the history of ideas.
His recently-published book, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (Harvard University Press, 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. More specifically, it investigates how early political debates over the Constitution’s meaning, in transforming the practices through which one could justifiably interpret the document, helped in the process alter how Americans imagined the Constitution and its possibilities. In the process, it considers 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 (which can be seen here). 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" and "The Age of Jackson Podcast" as well as in interviews for The Way of Improvement Leads Home and the Harvard University Press Blog.
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 published articles or book chapters 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, and an edited volume on neo-nullification and secession in American constitutional culture. 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 those nationalist-minded politicians and jurists who were initially in power at the time of the Constitution's creation. Additionally, he has articles or book chapters forthcoming in Law and History Review, the Missouri Law Review, and an edited volume on political thought and the origins of the American presidency.
He has written extensively on the relationship between historical practice and constitutional originalism, including in two essays on originalism and history and what historians do that appeared on Process: A Blog for American History, published by the Organization of American Historians. He is completing a book that presents a historical critique of originalism. It argues that recovering Founding-era American constitutionalism on its own term fundamentally challenges originalists' unspoken assumptions about the Constitution.
He is currently at work on a large project that is focused on popular sovereignty in the early United States. It explores debates over popular rule, democratic politics, sovereignty, federalism, constitutionalism, and the connections between them in the nation's earliest years. It seeks to understand the full, often now obscured, meanings of the Constitution's opening words: "We the People of the United States." It aims to show how questions of sovereignty and federal union on the one hand and popular political participation on the other were inextricably connected, and that the idea popular sovereignty was far from settled at any point during the Founding era.
In connection with this project, he has been exploring a distinct, yet forgotten, vision of constitutionalism that predominated at the American Founding, which will take the form of an article or short book entitled, "The Lost Constitution: The Rise and Fall of James Wilson's and Gouverneur Morris's Constitutionalism." Even though Wilson and Morris are largely forgotten today, no two delegates to the Constitutional Convention played a more significant role in shaping what ended up in the Constitution, and in the years immediately following the Convention their particular conception of the Constitution was dominant. Yet over the course of the 1790s and beyond, their vision was quietly supplanted and 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.