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Reviewed by:
  • Reading the Early Republic
  • Elisa Tamarkin (bio)
Reading the Early Republic. Robert A. Ferguson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 358 pp.

At the end of the introduction to Robert Ferguson's Reading the Early Republic, we find a claim of methodology as scrupulous in its ambition as it is curious in its provenance. In proposing that early republican texts have been "either forgotten or flattened in later ideological manipulations of them" (7), Ferguson invokes the legal theory of "textualism" as a means of recovering the dynamic contingencies of literary utterance and social circumstance in a historical moment that we think we know so well. As a matter of interpretive practice, such commitment has Ferguson keeping momentary company with Justice Antonin Scalia, from whom he takes hermeneutic inspiration, though only to suggest that retrieving the "original meaning" of foundational texts feels especially urgent at a time when our judicial authorities claim to be doing just that. What are we looking for when we construe a text?: as the most outspoken theorist of legal textualism, Scalia suggests we look for what laws actually say, rather than what legislators intended them to say, in order to guard against lenient (or purposive) interpretations of "unexpressed" meaning (A Matter of Interpretation, Princeton Univ. Press, 1997, 16). Ferguson brings this semantic diligence to a series of engagements with the culture and letters of the early [End Page 209] nation that inspire us to ground our responses to this period on the immanent constitution of its discourse. In returning to the meaning of words and images as they were actually used in this period-in all the vitality we had thought was lost-Ferguson bases political and cultural arguments, of which Scalia would never approve, on a philology he would have to accept. If textualism tells us to read a text for "all that it fairly means," Ferguson shows us that reading fairly means understanding the early republic as capaciously and energetically as it understood itself.

The notion of an "original meaning" in language can be misleading, and Reading the Early Republic does all it can to warn against the dangers of strict construction. Ferguson prefers to speak of an "original force" (7): what has been diminished, he says, in the seeming familiarity of our national beginnings, are the volatile, ideologically supple effects of words at a moment when "the pressure on language to convey understanding may never have been greater" (7). To look at the nation's founding for what it then was, rather than for what we have needed it to be, is to bring back the distinctiveness of expression and tone that confirm the extent to which the Revolutionary past was nothing at all like the periods that followed. This makes for a measurable sense of dislocation of the kind described by David Lowenthal and James Chandler, who both show what happens when history acknowledges how anachronistic the past can seem. For Ferguson, our historicizing is most instructive when we indulge ourselves in the particularity of character that marks the "earliness of the early republic" (9), and the world he reanimates is indeed remote. From the distortions that pattern nostalgia for the Revolution, the 10 essays of this book turn us back to unlikely lessons in anger, ugliness, violence, defeat, and discomposure. They are more than compelling: they address what Ferguson calls the "manic-depressive" moment of our national beginnings, which managed to mix belief in the certainty of progress with critical intimations of loss.

A chapteron Common Sense charts the contours of such emotional turbulence by looking at the way Tom Paine first excites colonial hatred toward Britain and then transmutes it into the ordering calm of national solidarity. Ferguson subtly describes the "rhetorical payoff" of a text that makes little effort to suppress its anger and assertion, thus playing to the unruliness of a reading public that would only contemplate the pursuit of "virtuous civic action" after testing the full measure of its lust for violence. A later chapter on John Jay's contribution to The Federalist describes how his "aesthetics [End Page 210] of ratification" (157) make an argument for the Constitution that seems unable to affirm the beauty...


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pp. 209-215
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