Professor Robert Ferguson

The Trial in American Life

Robert Ferguson (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

America's history of high-profile trials has not only captivated the public's imagination but also served as a forum for discussion of contentious issues and barometers of thought. Prof. Ferguson's new book, written for scholars and general readership, argues that we can only understand the importance of pivotal trials by examining their public impact as well as their legal significance. He accomplishes this task by bringing together courtroom transcripts, newspaper accounts, and the work of such writers as Emerson, Thoreau, William Dean Howells, and E. L. Doctorow to show what happens when courtrooms are forced to cope with unresolved communal anxieties and make legal decisions that change how America thinks about itself. How do such trials mushroom into major public dramas with fundamental ideas at stake? Why did outcomes that we now see as unjust enjoy community support at the time? At what point does overexposure undermine a trial's role as a legal proceeding?

Ultimately, such questions lead Prof. Ferguson to modern press coverage of courtrooms. While acknowledging that the media can skew perceptions, he argues forcefully in favor of television coverage – and he takes the U.S. Supreme Court to task for its failure to grasp the importance of this issue. Trials must be seen to be understood, but Prof. Ferguson reminds us that we have a duty, currently ignored, to ensure that cameras serve the court rather than the media. The Trial in American Life weaves Prof. Ferguson's deep knowledge of American history, law, and culture into a fascinating and highly relevant book.

The Federalist

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, with an introduction by Robert Ferguson (Barnes & Noble Classics Series, 2006)

It is hard to believe that these 85 essays, written mostly in haste, have achieved their deserved immortality, having become the benchmark of American political philosophy. Most of the "papers," as they are also called, were published in periodicals as the vote on approving the U.S. Constitution drew near. Without them, the Constitution most likely would not have been ratified, and America might not have survived as a nation. Prof. Ferguson's elegant introduction puts these papers in their historical setting and illuminates the personalities and motivations of the three writers. "At its best, The Federalist is a treatise on what political science can do and mean for any society," he writes. The book, which also contains bios on the authors, a timeline of related events, and the text of the Constitution itself, is especially suitable for those who have yet to delve into these great essays.

Reading the Early Republic

Professor Robert Ferguson (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004)

Reading the Early Republic focuses attention on the forgotten dynamism of thought in the founding era. In every case, the documents, novels, pamphlets, sermons, journals, and slave narratives of the early American nation are richer and more intricate than modern readers have perceived.

Rebellion, slavery, and treason - the mingled stories of the Revolution - still haunt national thought. Prof. Ferguson shows that the legacy that made the country remains the idea of what it is still trying to become. He cuts through the pervading nostalgia about national beginnings to recapture the manic-depressive tones of its first expression. He also has much to say about the reconfiguration of charity in American life, the vital role of the classical ideal in projecting an unthinkable continental republic, the first manipulations of the independent American woman, and the troubled integration of civic and commercial understandings in the original claims of prosperity as national virtue.

Reading the Early Republic uses the living textual tradition against history to prove its case. The first formative writings are more than sacred artifacts. They remain the touchstones of the durable promise and the problems in republican thought.