- Reading the Early Republic
Robert Ferguson's new book sets out to recover the particular meanings that circulated through a host of texts produced in America from the Revolutionary War through the mid-1840s. Ferguson starts with the idea that the meaning of language is bound by time and by context, so that when today we read or use words written two centuries ago, we are [End Page 304] liable to misunderstand them, both by missing intended meanings and by ascribing to those words meanings more relevant to our own time and context. "When modern wielders of early republican phraseology think they are using the same language, they do so only in a literal sense," he writes. "The words themselves often held different meanings when first expressed, and every original expression came in a context now lost to easy comprehension" (9–10). Ferguson's hope is to recapture the original meanings of these words by considering how the people who produced them and those who first received them operated with certain events, traditions of learning, literary forms, or rhetorical strategies in mind.
The book's ten chapters are arranged in rough chronological order and take up a wide range of texts. Chapter 1 explores the contextual nuances of words by reading Hannah Foster's The Coquette (1797) alongside Venture Smith's 1798 narrative, an 1802 entry from the diary of Nathaniel Ames, and Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address. Chapter 2 considers a variety of texts, including John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1768), to trace competing religious and secular ideas about liberty that for Ferguson joins together in a distinctive "dialectic of liberty" (as the chapter is titled) during the second half of the eighteenth century. In Chapter 3 the focus turns to a single pamphlet, Common Sense, and to a consideration of how Thomas Paine managed to capture and propel a nation by telling a dark and brooding story in a particular way. Chapter 4, "Becoming American," examines the treachery of Benedict Arnold and the trial of Major John André as a way into questions about loyalty and national identity in a time of rebellion. Chapter 5 moves to the constitutional period by taking up John Jay's essays in The Federalist, arguing that Jay articulated a distinct "aesthetics of ratification" (157) that had him contributing far more to the Federalist cause than has been recognized. Chapter 6 contends that the many ways in which members of the founding generation appealed to classical antiquity—in their Latin mottos, their historical paintings, their oratory, and their architecture—were not simply efforts to bind their own attempt at republican self-government to a noble tradition but were expressions of a "reflective nostalgia" that looked to the past in order to find "familiarity in the bewildering present" (195). In Chapter 7, Ferguson turns to Gabriel's Rebellion to examine both the limits of republican liberty and the specter of failure in the midst of revolutionary success. Chapter 8 considers Jefferson's "lifelong obsession" (218) with the design and construction [End Page 205] of Monticello as an avenue into the distinctly Enlightenment symbolic universe he inhabited. Chapter 9 studies the 1844 Girard case, which focused on questions about the uses of charity, as a telling example of how "the competitions of event and interpretation . . . yield particular patterns of historicity or meaning" (235). The final chapter, titled "The Last Early Republican Text," looks at The Last of the Mohicans (1826) as a characteristically republican expression of a catastrophic understanding of history.
There are a number of things to admire about this book. Ferguson is astute in his selection of events and texts; his choices enable him to move forward in time and across a range of political, social, and cultural historical topics, and they have him delving into a number of works that are widely read and taught, broadening the appeal of his book. In addition, many of his readings are interesting and persuasive. His chapter on Arnold and André, for instance, offers some wonderful...