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  • Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture
  • Kathleen Hilliard
Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture. By Jeannine Marie DeLombard (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. xiv plus 330 pp. $24.95).

Applying cultural legal studies to the study of the antebellum period, Jeannine DeLombard argues, yields new and useful perspectives on antislavery and the coming of the Civil War. Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture examines the ways contesting groups—white abolitionists, black slaves, proslavery advocates—used the metaphor and rhetoric of court trials as a means of "ordering and assigning meaning" to the slavery debates of the 1840s and 1850s (p. 221).

The sensational pages of the antebellum penny press invited the reading public to participate in the virtual investigation and prosecution of crimes du jour. Americans were "obsessed with legal spectatorship," DeLombard argues, and developed a knowledge of procedure and rhetoric on which to base their judgments. Faced with a judicial system in which black, and particularly slave, agency existed only in criminal form, abolitionists took advantage of this "alternative tribunal" to promote their arguments. Here, slavery itself was on trial (p. 5).

DeLombard deconstructs this trial trope as it evolved throughout the ante-bellum period, examining the evolving role of African-American voice, agency, and civic identity. In the early nineteenth century, the "bar of public opinion" was set decidedly against the abolitionist movement. But by identifying the slave power with a corrupt judiciary, abolitionists shifted the focus of public indictments, asking readers to judge not the slaves but the slaveholders and, by extension, the slave power. Slaves were valuable witnesses in this process but, as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass noted, their testimony required white authentication. Dissatisfied, Douglass increasingly "combine[d] personal narrative and advocacy" in an effort to redefine African-American agency and citizenship in the United States. (p. 142)

But the same trope that allowed abolitionists to make African American voices heard could also be used against them. The malleability of the trial rhetoric allowed it to be recalibrated to proslavery ends. In the South, the exploitive practices of wage capitalism were the subject of countersuit against the North. For both North and South, allegory met actuality in the trial of John Brown in 1859. A southern victory in the courtroom strengthened abolitionist disdain for the judicial system but also cast doubt on the ultimate utility of metaphor in the abolitionist cause. Americans, DeLombard concludes, came to see "the futility of print or legal solutions to the slavery crisis" (p. 221). [End Page 823]

DeLombard's argument rests on select case studies of familiar antislavery tracts—Sojourner Truth's 1850 Narrative; Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative and 1855 My Bondage My Freedom; and Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1856 Dred—and an obscure proslavery novel, William McCreary Burwell's 1856 White Acre v. Black Acre: A Case at Law. Her narrow focus allows close, in-depth readings of each of these works and she makes a strong case for the prevalence and utility of legal rhetoric and allegory in each.

Less convincing is DeLombard's characterization of the nature and character of the slavery debate itself. Her five case studies mix an odd assortment of autobiography and fiction, drama and satire, the familiar and the obscure. Her single proslavery example is particularly strange. Unlike tracts by Truth, Douglass, and Stowe, Burwell's White Acre v. Black Acre was and still is virtually unknown and unread. DeLombard, admittedly, makes no claim for representativeness. The tract serves as a vehicle for illustrating the trial trope's malleability in southern hands. Her northern studies are more conventional but emerge as a series of snapshots rather than benchmarks or turning points in a more thorough analysis of the genre as a whole. Readers are left wondering how and why and whether this eclectic body of literature evolved as DeLombard claims.

DeLombard's snapshot methodology makes problematic her assessment of the trial trope's role in the creation of African-American civic identity. For abolitionists who believed that progress could be made through the use of legal metaphor and propaganda, John Brown's conviction brought a grim dose of reality...


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