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 constitutionalism, political culture, 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, 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 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 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 large article on originalism and the original Constitution that will soon be published in Law and History Review.
He is currently at work on two large projects. The first, tentatively entitled "The Lost Constitution: The Rise and Fall of James Wilson's and Gouverneur Morris's Constitutionalism," explores a distinct, yet forgotten, vision of constitutionalism that predominated at the American Founding. Even though Wilson and Morris are largely forgotten today, no two delegates to the Constitutional Convention played a more significant role shaping what ended up in the Constitution than Wilson and Morris, and in the years immediately following the Convention their particular conception of the Constitution dominated debate. Yet over the course of the 1790s and beyond, in part because they did such a poor job advocating for it, their vision was quietly supplanted and lost. Bringing their vision back into focus and understanding both its original vitality as well as how and why it disappeared offers an unfamiliar and revealing account of the making of the original Constitution. Portions of this project are soon to be published in book chapter that explores the Founding-era relationship between national and presidential power and have just been published in an article that analyzes debates at the Founding over enumerated power, sovereignty, and the Constitution's Preamble.
The other big project he is at work on plans to rethink 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" ever emerged in the first place. A technical concept in political science up to that point, "democracy" acquired 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 they were 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.
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.