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The Trial In American Life

2007 non-fiction book by Robert A. Ferguson

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What a great idea for a book!

  • Feb 6, 2010
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While perusing the rack of "new books" at my local library the other day I came across Robert Ferguson's new book "The Trial In American Life"Ferguson is the Edward Woodberry Professor of Law, Literature and Criticism at Columbia University and as such is uniquely qualified to tackle this subject matter.  This sounded like a very promising topic to me and as I scanned the table of contents I became quite excited.  In what other book could you find a summary and analysis of some of the most historic and significant trials in the history of the republic all in once place???
I immediately checked this book out.  I could not wait to get started.

"The Trial in American Life" spends a considerable amount of time focusing on a handful of the most high profile trials in our nations history.  Aaron Burr was one of the Founding Fathers and served one term as Vice President of the United States.  His fall from grace was spectacular even though he was ultimately acquitted of the charge of treason.  You will come to see the wisdom in the way Chief Justice John Marshall handled this highly controversial case.  Next, Robert Ferguson dissects for us the trial of John Brown who led the raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Many consider this action to be the opening salvo of the Civil War!  It had been more than half a century since the trial of Aaron Burr.  More than most, John Brown seemed to understand the influence and power of newspaper and magazine coverage of his trial.  Some would say he played the media like a fiddle to get his most salient points across to the American people.  See what you think.  As an aside you might also be surprised to learn of the true origins of the popular song "John Brown's Body".  Needless to say the true story is quite different from the conventional wisdom.  In a subsequent chapter Ferguson tackles the trial of Mary Surratt who was implicated in the conspiracy to assasinate President LincolnMary Surratt would be found guilty and become the first woman in the history of the United States to be executed.  Yet most historians are convinced that she was innocent!  A careful reading of this chapter will afford the reader an understanding of how such a travesty of justice could have taken place in this country.  Finally, Ferguson discusses the tragic events in 1886 at Haymarket Square in Chicago and concludes with an analysis of the Rosenberg trial in 1951.  Again, it is impossible to underestimate the influence exerted by the American media in each of these tragic cases.  Robert Ferguson offers his readers much food for thought in his analysis of each of these proceedings.

In the final third of "The Trial in American Life" Ferguson discusses trials in the television age. There is seemingly much to worry about here and the potential for abuse is tremendous.  However, televised trials and 24 hour cable channels are realities that are simply not going to go away any time soon.  Robert Ferguson offers a number of practical suggestions to help mitigate the influence of media in the 21st century.

In general, I found "The Trial In American Life" to be a pretty decent cover to cover read.  Readers are afforded a unique opportunity to compare and contrast important trials that cover a 150 year time span.  However, at times I felt that the rather academic nature of this book made it a bit tedious. Nonetheless, Robert Ferguson has come up with an important work that will serve as a valuable reference tool for students for decades to come.    Recommended.
What a great idea for a book! What a great idea for a book! What a great idea for a book! What a great idea for a book!

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February 06, 2010
As a mild history buff, this book has a strange appeal to me. The last third might be the part I would willingly skip...I had enough of the televised trials of our generation to last a lifetime. From Klaus Von Bulow to OJ...No thanks.
February 06, 2010
Of course the Claus von Bulow trial took place right here in Rhode Island in Newport. As a matter of fact the widow of the presiding judge in that case Thomas Needham is a member of my parish church in Providence.
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Paul Tognetti ()
Ranked #2
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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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 ...

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ISBN-10: 0226243257
ISBN-13: 978-0226243252
Author: Robert A. Ferguson
Genre: Law
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Date Published: March 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
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