Meet 2017 ACLS Fellow Simon Gilhooley

The American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship Program awards fellowships to individual scholars working in the humanities and related social sciences.  The ultimate goal of the fellowship is a major piece of scholarly work that uses predominantly humanistic approaches and qualitative/interpretive methodologies. More information on grants and fellowships in the discipline is available here.

Simon Gilhooley is an Assistant Professor of Political Studies and American Studies at Bard College. He teaches courses on contemporary American politics, American political history, American political thought, and constitutional practice. His research builds upon insights from American politics and political theory, in order to address issues of constitutionality and authority within the American polity. He was recently awarded a 2017 ACLS fellowship to support his book project The Compact: The Proslavery Origins of the Modern US Constitution. The monograph explores the way in which a “spirit” of the Constitution became an animating motif of pro-slavery rhetoric during the 1830s, replacing an established mode of understanding the Constitution primarily with regard to its text. His website can be visited at

Tell us more about your research project. 

Gilhooley: “The Compact: The Pro-Slavery Origins of the Modern U.S. Constitution” is monograph tracing the manner in which the issue of slavery in the United States gave rise to a constitutional interpretation that emphasized “spirit” over “text.” Recent constitutional debates in the United States are often depicted in terms of a binary between commitment to the text as written (“originalism”) and commitment to a constitutional spirit that is embodied in the text (“living constitutionalism”). Within popular culture the former is largely seen as a conservative position and the latter as progressive. My work challenges this framework and its political assumptions by showing that a commitment to a constitutional spirit emerged historically as a conservative response to progressive interpretations of the text concerning slavery.

Focusing particularly on the debates surrounding the 1836 election and the issue of slavery in the District of Columbia, I trace the manner in which a “spirit of compact” was mobilized within pro-slavery constitutional interpretation in order to address abolitionist pressures. Arguing that there was a mode of constitutional interpretation more fundamental than the text itself, supporters of slavery argued for an agreement that transcended the text and reanimated the sentiments of 1787. Showing that attachment to a constitutional spirit over the text was initially offered as a conservative argument, I suggest that the claim that progressive activists ought to appeal to living constitutionalism over textualism is misplaced. Moreover, in showing that American slavery is constitutive of the grammar of contemporary constitutional debates, I highlight the difficulties of dividing liberal-republican and ascriptive traditions within American political thought.

What are your next steps and plans for your research?

Gilhooley: The current plans for the research extend along two lines. The first is to expand the archival basis for the understanding of the role of the constitution in the early republic. The project develops material drawn from my dissertation, and so the research has required me to revisit some original sources but also to locate and examine new ones. My research is very reliant upon archival materials and fortunately for historians of the early republic much of these have been digitalized. However, it is still necessary to spend time visiting the institutions and libraries that house archives to see the physical collections. In this regard I’m particularly concerned to incorporate African-American newspapers (for example, Freedom’s Journal, Colored American, Frederick Douglass’ Paper) within my analysis to ensure that role and arguments of the free black population is incorporated into a constitutional history that often marginalizes their voices by focusing on a white public sphere. The second step is to begin an intensive period of writing and editing the manuscript. Over the next year I hope to complete the manuscript and submit it to a university press for publication.

How will the ACLS Fellowship help you accomplish those steps?

Gilhooley: The ACLS fellowship is a vital source of support for this work. By providing me with the opportunity to take a semester away from my home campus (I teach at Bard College) I will be able to focus on researching and writing in a way that is not often possible. This freedom enables me to visit the archives that I need to while also devoting time to writing. The structure of the ACLS fellowship—it is support for an extended research project without a specific residency requirement—enables scholars to visit the archives important to their own work. For research such as mine, which is interdisciplinary in scope, this is a significant benefit.

You’re also affiliated with the American Studies program at Bard. How does interdisciplinary research and teaching impact your work?

Gilhooley: My research is by nature somewhat interdisciplinary – my interest in constitutional interpretation in the early republic means that I draw from and engage with colleagues working within the fields of history and legal studies regularly. Reflecting this, I was previously a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and have participated in the Gilder Lehrman Institute of Constitutional History seminars. This is both necessary and beneficial in trying to answer the types of questions that I am interested in. Teaching at a liberal arts college is fulfilling in this sense, insofar as the disciplinary divisions are less rigid and the student body is disposed to moving between disciplines—many of my classes can be orientated towards this interdisciplinary approach. This enables me to try and approach the issues I am interested in with sensitivity to different methodologies and the distinct insights and strengths that they contain.

What advice do you have for junior political science researchers and scholars? Both about funding opportunities and in general?

Gilhooley: In terms of funding opportunities I have been reasonably successful in my career so far – I have received awards from (amongst others) the Gilder Lehrman Institute, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society, and now the ACLS. My advice to junior scholars on this front would be to apply widely but also be specific in applications as to why being at the relevant institute or receiving the relevant award would be beneficial to your work. I think there is sometimes a tendency to apply for a few sources of funding that seem particularly applicable, but the reality of the competition for funding means that one should think critically about how your work could connect with various grants and fellowships and be expansive rather narrow in your approach to this. More broadly, one thing that I think is important as a junior scholar to focus fairly narrowly and develop a profile in a particular field. Being identified with an area in this way will help you professionally as you will be become a “go-to” person for that topic.