Americans widely believe that the United States Constitution was created when it was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788. But in a shrewd rereading of the founding era, Jonathan Gienapp upends this long-held assumption, recovering the unknown story of American constitutional creation in the decade after its adoption—a story with explosive implications for current debates over constitutional originalism and interpretation.
When the Constitution first appeared, it was shrouded in uncertainty. Not only was its meaning unclear, but so too was its essential nature. Was the American Constitution a written text, or something else? Was it a legal text? Was it finished or unfinished? What rules would guide its interpretation? Who would adjudicate competing readings? As political leaders put the Constitution to work, none of these questions had answers.
Through vigorous debates they confronted the document’s uncertainty, and—over time—how these leaders imagined the Constitution radically changed. They had begun trying to fix, or resolve, an imperfect document, but they ended up fixing, or cementing, a very particular notion of the Constitution as a distinctively textual and historical artifact circumscribed in space and time. This means that some of the Constitution’s most definitive characteristics, ones which are often treated as innate, were only added later and were thus contingent and optional.A few blurbs:
“The Second Creation is a brilliant and timely intervention in American constitutional history. By showing how ‘original intentions’ originated in congressional debates about what the framers and ratifiers originally intended, Jonathan Gienapp forces us to take another long look at what we understand the Constitution to be. His innovative and persuasive study will revolutionize the way lawyers as well as scholars interpret the Founding era.”—Peter S. Onuf
“Gienapp focuses our attention on the first decade of controversy over the remarkable new invention, a national Constitution. His fascinating and provocative story—how these debates created and imagined the Constitution—is told with great mastery and drama.”—Mary Sarah BilderMore information is available here. You can also read an interview with Gienapp about the book here, at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. And you can find a symposium on the book over at Balkinization. For example, here is Alison LaCroix's contribution.