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Chapter 3 The Ignominious Cord: Crime, Counterfactuals, and the New Black Politics But where does Negro crimes exceed the Crimes of White Men? —Warner Mifflin, The Defence of Warner Mifflin against Aspersions Cast on Him on Account of His Endeavors To Promote Righteousness, Mercy and Peace, among Mankind (1796) 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 an urgent invocation of temporality. “Brethren,” begins the emancipated Delaware slave and convicted murderer, “I address you at this (to me, and not only to me but to all mankind) solemn important and truly aweful and momentous time, a time when I am on the verge of eternity, and that there is but a few short fleeting hours for me to remain in this world, and of that short time every moment spent by me even in addressing you my dear brethren, shortens.”1 Packed with seven temporal references, this preliminary sentence establishes Johnstone’s conventional position as a condemned man entering print culture—authorizing him as one en route to the divine tribunal. In keeping with generic expectations, Johnstone, his “heart overflowing with love and humble hope in my God and Redeemer,” exhorts his “dear friends, and brethren” to consider “what a miserable and unhappy fate awaits me in a few days” (3). 120 Chapter 3 But the Johnstone depicted in the Address was no ordinary penitent criminal, and the pamphlet would not offer the standard gallows confession . Published fifteen years after the close of the American Revolution, the anti-confessional Address evinces the subversive tendencies of the era’s most widely circulated crime literature. As the title page indicates, the interpolated personal narrative is more a “Declaration” of Johnstone’s view of his case than a “Confession” of his guilt. Like the evangelical Whiting Sweeting or the roguish Stephen Burroughs, Abraham Johnstone articulates a broader popular resistance to the criminal law as a particularly coercive arm of an overreaching state power.2 Structurally, the composite text revises an earlier form of gallows literature in which the malefactor’s dying confession was appended to or published alongside the minister’s monitory sermon. Here the condemned man usurps the clergyman’s role, prefacing his exculpatory personal narrative with his own “series of wholesome admonition” (2). In similar fashion, the Address evokes the genre’s eschatological framework only to reinsert Johnstone in historical time. The two understandings of temporality were of course intimately connected in early America—and perhaps nowhere more visibly than in the Execution Day ritual, which joined individual repentance to communal expiation by mingling prayers and sermons with legal punishment. In his opening allusion to the “few short fleeting hours for me to remain in the world,” Johnstone appears to commence the traditional labor performed by the condemned by offering, through his untimely death, a timely warning to his fellow sinners that it is never too soon to prepare for the hereafter. But, as this chapter will argue, the time and place of its publication ensured that the Address’s sense of urgency was a primarily political one. Scheduled to be executed on July 8, 1797, four days after the annual Independence Day celebrations, Johnstone stood on the verge of eternity at a time when many in the United States felt themselves to be standing on the brink of a national future.3 The Revolution behind them, the Constitution ratified, Americans were poised to enact an autonomous history even as they continued to refine the myth of their national past. “The time of Anglo-America,” Stephen M. Best notes, “is a future perfect, a time not yet arrived, whose contingency and idealism remain the privileges granted to those on the road of history.”4 This sense of futurity was particularly intense in Johnstone’s North, which in the 1790s was putting a period to two kinds of dependency at once: colonialism and slavery. Many in the North seized the occasion to consolidate their nation’s exemplary identity as a free (white) republic by willfully 121 The Ignominious Cord forgetting slavery’s history in the region and either ignoring or seeking to eradicate the continuing presence of African Americans in their towns and...


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