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Slavery on Trial

Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture

Jeannine Marie
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  • Book Info
    Slavery on Trial
    Book Description:

    America's legal consciousness was high during the era that saw the imprisonment of abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, the execution of slave revolutionary Nat Turner, and the hangings of John Brown and his Harpers Ferry co-conspirators. Jeannine Marie DeLombard examines how debates over slavery in the three decades before the Civil War employed legal language to "try" the case for slavery in the court of public opinion via popular print media.Discussing autobiographies by Frederick Douglass, a scandal narrative about Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist speech by Henry David Thoreau, sentimental fiction by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a proslavery novel by William MacCreary Burwell, DeLombard argues that American literature of the era cannot be fully understood without an appreciation for the slavery debate in the courts and in print. Combining legal, literary, and book history approaches,Slavery on Trialprovides a refreshing alternative to the official perspectives offered by the nation's founding documents, legal treatises, statutes, and judicial decisions. DeLombard invites us to view the intersection of slavery and law as so many antebellum Americans did--through the lens of popular print culture.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0579-1
    Subjects: History, Law, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-32)

    During the three decades leading up to the Civil War, slavery was on trial in the United States. The legal status of the South’s peculiar institution was placed on trial every time slave cases appeared on federal and state dockets, as lawyers, judges, and juries worked out the technicalities of American slave law. From the imprisonment of abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison for libel and the execution of slave revolutionary Nat Turner for insurrection in the early 1830s to the trials of John Brown and his Harpers Ferry co-conspirators for treason in late 1859, numerous cases involving slavery became causes...

  5. PART I Banditti and Desperadoes, Incendiaries and Traitors

      (pp. 35-70)

      Although the story of abolitionist appeals to the court of public opinion begins in the early 1830s, jumping ahead to autumn 1850 can help us to appreciate the profound change in Northern attitudes toward slavery, print, and law that took place over the course of the antebellum period. On 26 September 1850, just after the passage of the nation’s controversial new Fugitive Slave Act, James Hamlet was arrested in New York City.¹ A “man of a dark complexion, who followed the honest vocation of a laborer,” Hamlet “was seized whilst in pursuit of his lawful business” and “dragged before one...

    • 2 PRECARIOUS EVIDENCE: Sojourner Truth and the Matthias Scandal
      (pp. 71-98)

      Along with his friend Henry David Thoreau’s criticism of Judge Loring and William Lloyd Garrison’s incineration of legal documents, the third of the “striking incidents” that Unitarian minister and abolitionist Moncure Daniel Conway recalled of the 4 July 1854 Framingham Grove gathering was the devastating dismissal of a fellow Southerner by “a very aged negro woman named ‘Sojourner Truth.’ ”¹ “Lank, shrivelled, but picturesque,” Truth sat on the platform, listening to a proslavery Carolinian whom Garrison had invited, impromptu, to address the crowd.² “The young man complied, and in the course of his defence of slavery and affirming his sincerity,...

  6. PART II At the Bar of Public Opinion

    • 3 EYEWITNESS TO THE CRUELTY: Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative
      (pp. 101-124)

      While William Lloyd Garrison was convening a court of popular opinion in which to gain a hearing for his appeals on behalf of the slave, Frederick Douglass was still Frederick Bailey, a Maryland bondsman. In the summer and fall of 1834, as the Zion Hill household disintegrated and the first newspaper reports of the Matthias scandal began to appear, Bailey was waging physical and psychological battle with notorious “nigger breaker” Edward Covey.¹ Then, in 1845, a decade after Gilbert Vale presented the “Simple Narrative of Isabella in the Case of Matthias” as “the Whole Truth—and Nothing but the Truth,”...

    • 4 TALKING LAWYERLIKE ABOUT LAW: Black Advocacy and My Bondage and My Freedom
      (pp. 125-150)

      Upon the publication of his Narrative, Frederick Douglass boarded the steamship Cambria for an eighteen-month lecture tour of the British Isles. On 27 August 1845, the day before the Cambria docked in Liverpool, Douglass—who had spent the voyage segregated from first class—was invited to give his fellow voyagers a sample of his celebrated oratory. Soon after he began speaking, however, a small riot broke out, ending only when the captain threatened to put the rioters in irons.¹ In subsequent accounts of the shipboard events, Douglass indicated that the riot began when he substituted his autobiographical testimony with a...

    • 5 REPRESENTING THE SLAVE: White Advocacy and Black Testimony in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred
      (pp. 151-176)

      Combing through the trial transcripts and newspaper clippings in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a dedicated reader of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s first antislavery novel might have been pleased to come across a fictional vignette featuring two of the book’s best-known characters, Simon Legree and Tom. Unlike the novel, however, in which the cruel master’s brutality leads to the humble slave’s death, this scene imagines the conflict between slaveholder and bondsman not in sentimental terms, as demonic violence and Christian martyrdom, but in juridical terms, as a legal dispute mediated by a benevolent white man.

      Stowe offers the scene to...

    • 6 THE SOUTH’S COUNTERSUIT: William MacCreary Burwell’s White Acre vs. Black Acre
      (pp. 177-198)

      In its notice of Dred, the influential Southern periodical DeBow’s Review presented Stowe’s novel as “another exhibition of abolition spite and spleen, which, as it is productive of the cent and dollar, makes very good charity, religion, and philanthropy in that quarter.”¹ This view of abolitionist print propaganda as a cynical moneymaking enterprise is humorously exhibited in a work featured in the same “Book Notices,” White Acre vs. Black Acre, a Case at Law. Lauded by DeBow’s as an “admirable burlesque,” this odd proslavery novel does not appear to have reached Stowe’s audiences in the North and abroad.² It was,...

  7. CONCLUSION ALL DONE BROWN AT LAST: Illustrating Harpers Ferry
    (pp. 199-222)

    The puff in DeBow’s Review praising William Mac-Creary Burwell’s White Acre vs. Black Acre as an “admirable burlesque” indicates that in the mid-1850s renewed allegations of a criminal abolitionist conspiracy were as likely to prompt mirth as fear, even in the South. A mere three years later, however, such charges would be terrifyingly vindicated for many Southerners by John Brown’s attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.¹ The prospect of a white-led, armed slave rebellion was devastating enough, but sectional paranoia heightened when Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise’s investigation turned up a cache of incriminating letters between Brown...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 223-276)
    (pp. 277-308)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 309-330)