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American Quarterly 53.2 (2001) 340-348
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Did Post-structuralism Fail the Historians, or Did the Historians Fail Post-structuralism?
University of Notre Dame
DURING THE 1990S, NO HISTORIAN OF EARLY AMERICA MORE PUBLICLY OR forthrightly argued for the value of postmodern theory than Saul Cornell. 1 In a series of provocative conference presentations and articles, Cornell depicted a set of theoretical insights that had the potential to help early American historians, legal scholars, and students of the American "founding" out of the interpretive quagmire. Cornell was also, not coincidentally, one of the first winners of the prestigious postdoctoral fellowship of the Institute of Early American History and Culture to take a postmodern plunge. The subsequent publication by the Institute of several books that took a cultural, and even at times self-consciously literary and post-structuralist, approach to classic problems in the field might otherwise obscure the important role Cornell played in sounding the tocsin for "theory," in trying to define (and translate) the substance of those theories, and in catching flak from an assortment of political, social, and intellectual historians who wondered where the reorganization of scholarship around competing "texts" and "discourses" might take the study of early America. 2 [End Page 340]
In his own work, Cornell had set himself the unenviable task of finally resolving the question of "who were the antifederalists"--those eloquent critics of the Constitution who seemed to disappear from the historical stage as quickly as they appeared. He sought a method equal to the task of accounting for a phenomenon that had been variously defined as a temporary throwback, a missed opportunity, a coherent political theory, and an incoherent container for a variety of local political interests. Were antifederalists a group of people? a set of ideas? Cornell's first articles on the subject followed the mature methodologies of the study of political culture in the 1980s, using the concept of ideology to define important strains of antifederalism (backcountry populist and bourgeois) neglected by previous scholars. Backcountry antifederalists, in Cornell's 1990 rendering, not only had different beliefs but different modes of opposition. Antifederalism, it seemed, might well turn out to have as many flavors as federalism, as the Whig or Democratic parties of the antebellum era, or even as the true progenitor of them all, the meta-ideology of republicanism. 3
Post-structuralist approaches to texts, however, do not mesh easily with the taxonomic approach favored by intellectual and cultural history. These scholarly enterprises stress continuities and transformative evolutions within coherent traditions of "thought," or subcultures. 4 Cornell's subsequent methodological essays of the early to mid-1990s suggested that the ambiguities of texts, not to mention "the problem of hegemony," had been neglected by the traditional intellectual historians and the more recent cultural turn; as a result, marginal voices were too often silenced, and the circulation of texts (rather than the intentions of authors) had been left unexplored. The dialogic nature of the American "founding" debate might especially require a "pragmatic hermeneutics" that attended to reader response and to the formation of constitutional canons. Antifederalists, after all, were nothing if not readers of a text (the Constitution). As partial case studies, Cornell's articles threw out tantalizing suggestions as to how the task of the historian--to define antifederalism, tell its story, and assess its significance--might be enhanced by attention to "diverse communities of discourse," and to the textual analysis of "the social behavior of individuals and groups who did not produce traditional texts." 5
As a result, Cornell's book on Anti-Federalism has been eagerly awaited. Yet true to his own interest in the migration of texts, Cornell did not stand still to defend his earlier positions. He has moved...