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The Second Creation

The Second Creation

Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era

Jonathan Gienapp

ISBN 9780674185043

Publication date: 10/09/2018

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A stunning revision of our founding document’s evolving history that forces us to confront anew the question that animated the founders so long ago: What is our Constitution?

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.


  • Focuses on many of the structural and institutional issues that continue to consume us—including presidential powers, the role of Congress, and the use and abuse of originalist approaches to the Constitution—and in so doing raises questions that shine a light on today’s national debates…Gienapp’s study—intellectual history as textual exegesis at its best—offers a convincing and invaluable examination of the words and ideas that marked the evolution of the American constitutional imagination.

    —Karen J. Greenberg, The Nation


  • 2019, Winner of the APSA Best Book in American Political Thought Award


  • Jonathan Gienapp is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University. A scholar of early American political culture, he has written several articles on early constitutional history and modern constitutional theory and interpretation that speak to current political concerns.

Book Details

  • 464 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press