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In the Shadow of the Gallows

Race, Crime, and American Civic Identity

By Jeannine Marie DeLombard

Publication Year: 2012

From Puritan Execution Day rituals to gangsta rap, the black criminal has been an enduring presence in American culture. To understand why, Jeannine Marie DeLombard insists, we must set aside the lenses of pathology and persecution and instead view the African American felon from the far more revealing perspectives of publicity and personhood. When the Supreme Court declared in Dred Scott that African Americans have "no rights which the white man was bound to respect," it overlooked the right to due process, which ensured that black offenders—even slaves—appeared as persons in the eyes of the law. In the familiar account of African Americans' historical shift "from plantation to prison," we have forgotten how, for a century before the Civil War, state punishment affirmed black political membership in the breach, while a thriving popular crime literature provided early America's best-known models of individual black selfhood. Before there was the slave narrative, there was the criminal confession.

Placing the black condemned at the forefront of the African American canon allows us to see how a later generation of enslaved activists—most notably, Frederick Douglass—could marshal the public presence and civic authority necessary to fashion themselves as eligible citizens. At the same time, in an era when abolitionists were charging Americans with the national crime of "manstealing," a racialized sense of culpability became equally central to white civic identity. What, for African Americans, is the legacy of a citizenship grounded in culpable personhood? For white Americans, must membership in a nation built on race slavery always betoken guilt? In the Shadow of the Gallows reads classics by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, George Lippard, and Edward Everett Hale alongside execution sermons, criminal confessions, trial transcripts, philosophical treatises, and political polemics to address fundamental questions about race, responsibility, and American civic belonging.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Haney Foundation Series

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: How a Slave Was Made a Man

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pp. 1-48

Writing was an indispensable tool for the public assertion of black humanity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when millions of Africans and their descendants were being bought and sold as objects of property throughout the Atlantic world...

Part I

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pp. 49-116

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1. Contracting Guilt: Mixed Character, Civil Slavery, and the Social Compact

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pp. 51-86

With respect to citizenship, the query posed by Crèvecoeur’s fictional American farmer (himself a British colonist) would go formally unanswered from the Founding to the Civil War. Until passage of the Fourteenth Amendment...

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2. Black Catalogues: Crime, Print, and the Rise of the Black Self

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pp. 87-116

Writing for the abolitionist National Era newspaper five years after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had debuted in its pages, prolific Southern novelist and death penalty critic E.D.E.N. Southworth concluded one of her popular serialized...

Part II

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3. The Ignominious Cord: Crime, Counterfactuals, and the New Black Politics

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pp. 119-163

The remarkable Address of Abraham Johnstone, A Black Man, Who Was Hanged at Woodbury, in the County of Glocester, and State of New Jersey, on Saturday the the [sic] 8th Day of July Last; To the People of Colour. To Which Is Added His Dying Confession or Declaration. Also, a Copy of a Letter to His Wife, Written the Day Previous to His Execution (1797) opens with...

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4. The Work of Death: Time, Crime, and Personhood in Jacksonian America

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pp. 164-205

Faced with the dilemma race slavery and its legacy posed to the new republic, such prominent Americans as Noah Webster, Thomas Jefferson, and St. George Tucker suggested that a slavery-engendered propensity for crime precluded...

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5. How Freeman Was Made a Madman: Race, Capacity, and Citizenship

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pp. 206-251

In contrast with the thousands who flocked to early American Execution Day rituals, only about three hundred people attended the prison-yard hanging of Edward Coleman, and doubtless fewer still watched Dr. Chilton apply his Galvanic...

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6. Who Aint a Slaver? Citizenship, Piracy, and Slaver Narratives

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pp. 252-294

As initial reports of the Van Nest murders appeared throughout the spring of 1846, the press was also publicizing the seizure of the American slave ship, Pons, and the landing of its nearly nine hundred sick and dying African...

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pp. 295-311

Let us return to the gallows portrait depicting “two sweeps, one of whom was represented as a negro, and the other as a mullato speaking the German language,” at prayer before their hanging for the murders of Pennsylvania Dutch matrons Anna Garber...


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pp. 313-379


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pp. 381-431


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pp. 433-441

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pp. 443-446

This book began in 1992, when Houston Baker encouraged me to seek the slave narrative’s testimonial origins in Puritan evidences. Doubt turned into fascination when I encountered the remarkable number of confessions and execution...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206333
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244229

Page Count: 456
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Haney Foundation Series
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OCLC Number: 822017755
MUSE Marc Record: Download for In the Shadow of the Gallows

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • African Americans in literature -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • African Americans -- Race identity -- History.
  • African Americans -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- History.
  • Crime and race -- United States -- History.
  • Citizenship -- United States.
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