Those who study the period of American history between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War often encounter the power and resilience of the written word. During a time of great upheaval, printing presses were busy disseminating pamphlets and novelized accounts of various social causes, national events, and legal proceedings. Serving as the mediator between those directly involved and the general public, the written word drew in and regulated the responses [End Page 113] of the American reading public to various public events. The dialogue between the written word and its readers spoke into existence an imagined community simply by allowing them to partake of, even pass judgment upon, the events, debates, and causes recorded on the page.
With The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War, Caleb Smith has done a masterful job of exploring the power of the written word to create public spheres where none had previously existed. Delving specifically into the world of law in early national and antebellum America, Smith traces the evolution of “a poetics of justice.” This phrase encompasses three mutually reinforcing elements: the Oracle (the legal profession, judges in particular), the Curse (the accused or offending party), and the various documents, spanning court proceedings to written confessions to serialized novels that arose from legal proceedings.
Following the Revolutionary War, Smith argues, English notions of “common law,” or unwritten custom, and “higher law,” the law of God, became untenable in an America determined to rid its nascent political and legal institutions from any remnants of British tyranny or theocracy. Instead, the symbol of the legal world became the Oracle, embodied by the rational, impartial keeper of the law, the judge. Appeals to higher law were not abandoned entirely, however. Such non-rational, even prophetic, cries for God’s justice or vengeance came to exist in the form of the Curse, generally spoken by the accused.
In both cases of the Oracle and the Curse, the various official and unofficial documents that arose from court proceedings sought sanction in the court of public opinion for both the jurists and the accused. Smith draws upon official trial testimony, including confessions such as that of Nat Turner, transcriptions of sentencing hearings, and execution sermons, as well as fictional treatments of such events in the form of novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dred or poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others. These examples serve Smith’s larger argument, which is to show how the life of many trials—particularly those dealing with matters of religion, gender, and race—extended far beyond the courtroom. [End Page 114] The dissemination of such documents called upon a sovereign people to either reinforce or oppose a verdict, to stand behind the rational Oracle or rebel with the damned.
Smith’s reimagining of the public sphere as something that is breathed into existence by the written word is both innovative and artfully argued. However, Smith does not appear to follow through with the implications of this argument in his Epilogue, where he invokes the words of Deak Nabers who called the Civil War solely a “legal victory.” What of President Lincoln’s crediting of Harriet Beecher Stowe—one of Smith’s examples—with “sparking this great war?” If words do truly have such power to create a public space for thought and debate, then the choice of Naber to close the argument was an odd one. Finally, it is also not entirely clear that there was ever so holistic a switch from a theocratic legal system to one steeped in rationalism. Smith acknowledges that judges could regress; however, it seemed that the line between higher law and state law was traversed as often as it was maintained. Nonetheless, the book is an exceptional contribution to the realm of religious and literary studies, as well as American history.
Lydia Willsky is a visiting assistant professor of religious studies at...