- Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture
The three decades preceding the Civil War encompass a period in American history in which the question of slavery preoccupied American popular imagination through several landmark legal cases. Among [End Page 261] many others, the epoch witnessed the Nat Turner trial, the Dred Scott Supreme Court case, and the trial of John Brown and his co-conspirators. The wealth of legal activity concerning slavery during the period and its representation in popular print culture has informed a great number of works by historians and literary scholars alike. Jeannine Marie DeLombard's Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture is unique in its depiction of intersections of law, abolitionist activism, and print culture. DeLombard illustrates how through print media white abolitionists constructed themselves as advocates, the enslaved as victims and eyewitnesses, and Southern slaveholders as criminal perpetrators. The presiding court was that of public opinion.
DeLombard introduces her "trial trope of slavery" within the context of the history of American jurisprudence. She suggests that changes in the legal field from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century resulted in decreased lay participation in the judicial process. This provoked the fear among Northern white male citizens that increasing authority of the judiciary could restrict civil liberties. DeLombard then examines the relationship between the American public and the legal sphere through print media. Here, the author does not tread new ground; rather, she meticulously engages with the works of various scholars to briefly provide a context to the legal sphere's relationship to print culture. She focuses attention on gallows literature—a popular form of writing that entailed criminal confession and in which blacks were disproportionately represented—to depict how biographical narratives featuring black subjects had hitherto been bound in the popular imagination to criminal confession.
DeLombard's work thus presents a confluence of legal history and a tradition of black representation in print. In part 1 of the book, she successfully excavates these running themes. In the first chapter ("The Typographical Tribunal") she positions the 1830 William Lloyd Garrison libel trial as a turning point in how abolitionists successfully appropriated the rhetoric of civil liberties to connect their antislavery activism to the fears and concerns of Northern white male citizens over a powerful and conservative judiciary. However, it is in her reading of Sojourner Truth's involvement in the Prophet Matthias scandal in the second chapter that DeLombard initiates the sustained connections she will make throughout her work among white advocacy, black testimony, and the popular tribunal created through print. Her critical examination of this scandal emphasizes its significance as a defining moment in the reconstruction of African American engagement in print—the black subject's turn from criminal confessor to eyewitness and accuser. In light of her engagement with John Sekora's "Black Messages/ White Envelope," an essay that centers the tension between "black testimony" and "white advocacy" on the experiences of Frederick Douglass, DeLombard's discussion of the prophet Mathias scandal leaves one to wonder how the experiences of Sojourner Truth might further inform us about this uneasy relationship. [End Page 262]
In part 2, DeLombard introduces three different variations in the trial trope she associates with the abolitionists' print agenda. In the two chapters on Frederick Douglass, she foregrounds the latter's growing dissatisfaction with the juridical metaphor espoused by the abolitionist movement. The author suggests that while the metaphor provided a conceptual framework to popularly discuss the issue of slavery, Douglass understood that it froze the black subject in the always subordinate position of witness and denied that subject the power of self-representation. In her discussion of Harriet Beecher Stowe's second novel, Dred, DeLombard suggests Stowe was able to apprehend the tension existing between white advocacy and black testimony. She claims, however, that Stowe's realization in the end comes to naught as her novel's ending suggests she was ultimately unable to rise above white paternalism. In the final chapter of part...