Jonathan Gienapp is a historian of Revolutionary and early republican America specializing in the period’s constitutional, political, legal, and intellectual history. His primary focus to date has been the origins and development of the U.S. Constitution, in particular the ways in which Founding-era Americans understood and debated constitutionalism across the early decades of the United States. His historical interests often intersect with modern debates over constitutional interpretation and theory, especially those centered on the theory of constitutional originalism. He is also especially 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 altered 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 was 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 Current and the Harvard University Press Blog.
Gienapp has also written on a range of related topics pertaining to early American constitutionalism, politics, and intellectual history, modern constitutional interpretation, 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 Republic, Law and History Review, The New England Quarterly, and Constitutional Commentary. He 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 completing a book entitled, "Against Constitutional Originalism: A Historical Critique," that is under contract with Yale University Press and will be published in 2024. Presenting a comprehensive historical critique of originalism, the book argues that recovering Founding-era constitutionalism on its own terms fundamentally challenges originalists' unspoken assumptions about the U.S. 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. His work on originalism has been featured in The New York Times.
Gienapp is currently at work on a large book on the forgotten history of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, currently entitled "We the People of the United States: The Struggle over Popular Sovereignty and Nationhood." 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 subsequent decades, however, their vision was quietly supplanted and largely pushed underground. 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 early U.S. constitutionalism.
Gienapp has lectured widely on the U.S. Constitution and the American Founding era. Among other appearances, he discussed the Constitution's history in an episode of the podcast, "Writ Large," participated in a National Constitution Center Town Hall, "The Founders' Library: Intellectual Sources of the Constitution," discussed James Wilson's contributions to U.S. constitutionalism in a webinar hosted by the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding, was interviewed about the history of election disputes in the United States for The New York Times, and discussed the history of minority rule in the United States on NPR's All Things Considered. He also helped compile the National Constitution Center's Founders' Library.
Gienapp is accepting graduate students who are interested in working on all aspects of early American history. 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.
James Wilson Institute Conversation: Unlocking Constitutional Meaning: James Wilson As the Key
NPR's All Things Considered: The Constitution was built to allow for the few to hold so much power
Stanford News Interview: Stanford historian discusses the Electoral College and its origins
Talking Legal History Podcast with Siobhan M.M. Barco: History & Constitutional Originalism
Law's Dimensions Interview: Episode Nine with Professor Jonathan Gienapp
Live at the National Constitution Center Podcast: "The Founders' Library"
National Constitution Center Town Hall: "The Founders' Library: Intellectual Sources of the Constitution"
Writ Large Podcast with Zachary Davis: The Constitution of the United States
The Age of Jackson Podcast: The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era
New Books in History Podcast: The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era