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 is particularly interested in the period’s political culture, constitutionalism, and intellectual history. More generally, he is interested in the method and practice of the history of ideas, especially how it might profit from mutually beneficial exchanges with other disciplines in the human sciences, particularly recent philosophy of language.
His recently-published book, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (Harvard University Press), 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.
He 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 in Constitutional Commentary, the Journal of the Early Republic, the Fordham Law Review, and an edited volume on neo-nullification and secession in American constitutional culture. Building off of already published work, he also has a large article project in the works on the relationship between historical practice and constitutional originalism. For a preview, see the two essays (linked below) that appeared on Process: A Blog for American History, published by the Organization of American Historians. Additionally, he is soon to complete a related article about originalism's misunderstandings about the original United States Constitution and another article on how the Constitution written in 1787 was quickly and quietly obscured during the subsequent decade of constitutional combat.
His next large project rethinks the rise of American democracy in the late 18th and early 19th-century United States by interrogating, not how American political culture came under greater popular control, but how a peculiar understanding of "democracy" emerged in the first place. A technical concept in political science up to that point, "democracy" came to acquire novel and expansive meaning during this period, morphing into the definitive norm by which all modern political practice has come to be judged. To explain why, classic accounts focus on popular political transformations. But these transformations did not necessitate a corresponding shift in political language and consciousness. They could not, in their own right, force anybody to call such transformations or the practices they initiated "democratic." During this period, "democracy" and its cognates took on profoundly new meanings as it was aggressively mobilized in several distinct contexts and in service of several distinct purposes. The project seeks to understand why Americans' usage and understanding of this crucial word and concept transformed in such fundamental ways.
He 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.