- Burdens of Proof:Doing Justice to Antebellum Writing About Slavery
Given the voluminous scholarship about slavery and the rhetoric that opposed and defended it in the United States during the three decades before the Civil War, can new theoretical models and analytical tools be found that yield insights hitherto unoffered? Particular texts remain to be analyzed, of course, and studies focusing on various subgroups (African American abolitionists, women novelists) frequently question dominant views and provide new perspectives. But can innovative frameworks be discovered that illuminate discourse produced not just by particular groups or factions but the print culture of slavery as a whole? Can the analytical tools that emerge provide new views of rhetoric that has been researched extensively, such as Frederick Douglass's autobiographies, and/or of figures to whom many studies have been devoted, such as Sojourner Truth? Jeannine Marie DeLombard's Slavery on Trial, which offers readers fresh and engaging analyses of texts both well known and unfamiliar, demonstrates that these questions can be answered affirmatively.
"During the three decades leading up to the Civil War," DeLombard asserts, "slavery was on trial in the United States" both in the literal courts and in the "alternative tribunal" created by "the mass medium of print" (p. 1). We cannot fully understand the texts of the period, therefore, without comprehending how "the popular legal consciousness that permeated both the slavery controversy and the print culture in which it was conducted" influenced "the abolitionist movement, its visions of African American citizenship, and its contribution to American literature" (p. 2). This influence was complex and not always progressive, DeLombard notes; legal language and models could "reinforce black subordination within the [abolition] movement" and "prove constraining as well as liberating" (p. 3). Ultimately, though, abolitionists' "appeals to popular legal consciousness" and their appropriation of the roles, rules, and language of the adversarial trial enabled them to shift public opinion in [End Page 30] fundamental ways, to authorize "former slaves and their white advocates" to speak against slavery, and to connect slavery to the key questions of "social culpability, legal capacity, and civic belonging" (pp. 220–1).
DeLombard's introduction suggests various forces that shaped the context for the literature she will feature: the legal battles that both inspired and surrounded print literature about slavery, both in Britain and colonial America; the popularity of gallows literature, which frequently featured people of color as criminals; the influence of "a pervasive, powerful Christian morality" on "law, politics, and economics"; and Jacksonian concerns that the judiciary was too powerful and potentially untrustworthy (p. 13). In chapter one, DeLombard reminds us that, during the 1830s, abolitionists were unpopular in the North as well as the South and were, in fact, frequently cast as criminals preaching sedition and provoking violence, as William Lloyd Garrison's imprisonment for libel in 1830 and Elijah P. Lovejoy's 1837 murder demonstrate. She analyzes how abolitionists shifted the focus from their activism to the proslavery courts and those who supported them, adopting a "prosecutorial stance" that allowed them to recast themselves as victims of a slaveholding power that would deny them freedom of speech and, by the 1850s, due process (p. 42). Chapter two examines another key change: the transformation of African Americans in legally inflected print culture from the "malefactors of color" of the "gallows literature tradition" to "the testifying eyewitness of antislavery literature" (pp. 73–4). DeLombard takes as her case study here the print exchange over Sojourner Truth's role in the scandal attending the cult known as the Kingdom of Matthias—an account accusing Truth of murder and the rebuttal created by Truth and British editor Gilbert Vale—to both trace "the black print subject's transformation" from criminal to "victimized ex-slave testifying to the crimes of corrupt whites" and demonstrate the limits of this new role for African Americans (pp. 73–4).
Chapters three and four examine the shift in Frederick Douglass's persona and claims to authority from his 1845...