American legal narratives of the nineteenth century tell us that slaves, free blacks, and women had no legal voice. (1) Nevertheless, Sojourner Truth, an African American woman and former slave, initiated successful lawsuits, attempted to vote, petitioned Congress, and in many other ways insisted upon a legal and political voice. Studying the traces we have of Truth's legal activism helps to complicate our picture of Sojourner Truth, often seen only as orator or as larger-than-life icon of early feminism, and helps to speak to some of the silences in the intentionally incomplete record of US slavery and resistance.
Two years after the Union victory, instead of yielding to pressure to leave the painful issues of the war in the past, Troth insists on keeping slavery in the public eye. The American Equal Rights Association cheers when she takes the stage, but Truth warns, "I am rejoiced that you are glad, but I don't know how you will feel when I get through." She reminds her mostly white New York audience of their different origins: "I come from another field--the country of the slave. They have got their liberty--so much good luck to have slavery partly destroyed; not entirely. I want it root and branch destroyed. Then we will all be free indeed." She also assures this organization of woman suffragists: "I want women to have their rights. In the courts women have no right, no voice; nobody speaks for them. I wish woman to have her voice there among the pettifoggers. If it is not a fit place for women, it is unfit for men to be there." (2) While the law asserts otherwise, Truth's activism demonstrates the capacity of disfranchised Americans to seize legal agency, to demand a voice "among the pettifoggers." Through her escape from slavery, on the eve of emancipation, her multiple lawsuits, and other examples of private and public activism, Truth functions as a legal actor, revealing the law as both an agent of oppression and a potential tool for resistance. Truth's relationship to the law anticipates the relationship described by critical race theorists more than a century later: law as both subordination and liberation. (3) A complete picture of Sojourner Truth is impossible, especially given the compromised textual record of her words, (4) but examining her persistent legal agency helps to provide another dimension to this iconic figure and helps to deconstruct the myth of all-powerful slave laws and silenced slaves.
Like many early African American activists, Truth had escaped from slavery. The terms of her escape reveal the contradictions and pettiness in the rhetoric and behavior of lawmakers and slaveholders, even as they worked toward emancipation. Truth was born in the slaveholding state of New York at the end of the eighteenth century. She was to be officially freed under New York's emancipation legislation. The subtitle of her 1850 book gives the state credit for her freedom: Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828. (5) The title page of the 1878 edition locates agency specifically in the state legislature and places her servitude and emancipation further in the past: Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Bondswoman of Olden Time, Emancipated by the New York Legislature in the Early Part of the Present Century. In this description, Truth's bondage was "olden" and her freedom came "early," thanks to the lawmakers of New York. In fact, Truth did not wait for the lawmakers. She escaped prior to the official date of emancipation, after her owner went back on his word to free her early.
New York's 1817 emancipation statute provided gradual freedom for enslaved African Americans, revealing anxiety about creating a free black population too quickly. Slaves who were born before July 4, 1799, including Truth, would be free on July 4, 1827. Slaves born after that date, including Truth's children, would remain in servitude until age twenty-five for women and twenty-eight for men (Laws of NY 137: [section] 32 and [section] 4). Those born after passage of the act (March 31, 1817) would remain in servitude until age twenty-one. These staggered dates, based on age and gender, meant there was no single day of collective emancipation. Slaveholders would be eased into this post-slavery era, but wives and husbands, parents and children, sisters and brothers, inevitably would remain bound until different moments. (6)
The key dividing points and the gradual dates of emancipation fell on the fourth of July, Independence Day. "Independence," however, was parceled out over several decades, and if one were born on the wrong side of that patriotic holiday, it meant more years of slavery. As Frederick Douglass declares in his "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" speech, "I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us" (284). His speech explicitly calls for "scorching irony" as he exposes the many ironies of American slavery (287). Another key irony in New York's emancipation debates is the dilemma posed by its own democratic history: the state constitution, written in 1777 and full of revolutionary fervor, granted voting rights to all free propertied men, without reference to color or prior condition. Hence, simply freeing slaves might have the side effect of giving some of them the civil rights of white men. Legislators tentatively resolved this problem in 1785 by placing some limits on slavery while also limiting the political rights of free blacks, and continuing to debate emancipation for three more decades. So while New York was somewhat early to debate emancipation, the state also was early to articulate limits on the rights of former slaves. (7)
Sojourner Truth may not have known the details of these legislative ironies, but she knew that she was entitled to be free both by state decree and by her owner's word. Thus when her owner, John Dumont, revoked his promise of freedom, she decided to dissolve the terms of their contract. They, of course, never had a freely entered mutual contract, but even under the unilateral terms of slavery, Truth believed that Dumont had failed in his obligations. Dumont gave a reason: she had sustained a serious injury to her hand, and so he had sustained an economic loss, and she therefore (by the logic of slavery) owed him another year of her labor. Her injury of course was sustained while she was providing him free labor in the first place, but slaveholders often invoke the rhetorics of fairness and entitlement when breaking their word. Slave narrator Harriet Jacobs, for example, details the legalistic excuses allowed to her grandmother's owner, her owner, and her children's owner. Jacobs describes the twisted legal reasoning: "The reader probably knows that no promise or writing given to a slave is legally binding; for, according to Southern laws, a slave being property, can hold no property. When my grandmother lent her hard earnings to her mistress, she trusted solely to her honor. The honor of a slaveholder to a slave!" (6). Truth is quoted in her Narrative as offering this analysis of the honor of slaveholders in keeping to their own contracts:
[T]he slaveholders are TERRIBLE for promising to give you this or that ... if you will do thus and so; and when the time of fulfilment comes, and one claims the promise, they, forsooth, recollect nothing of the kind; and you are, like as not, taunted with being a LIAR; or, at best, the slave is accused of not having performed his part or condition of the contract. (Truth and Gilbert 39-40)
Slaveholders impose their own contracts and devise their own loopholes, as did Dumont. So Truth determined to throw off such government, as resolutely as Jefferson decided to throw off King George's government a half century earlier, (8) and in late 1826 she walked away with her youngest child. She did, however, decide to finish her current project, spinning Dumont's wool, before she left, perhaps to demonstrate to him her superior sense of fulfilling one's obligations. If Dumont could not live by even his own laws, she would take justice "into her own hands." (9)
Like Douglass and Jacobs, Truth's freedom came from a combination of escaping her bondage and being purchased by white friends. After her escape, she stayed with the Van Wagenen family, who eventually paid Dumont for the remaining months of her service to which he imagined himself entitled. Unlike Douglass and Jacobs, Truth did not spend years living as a fugitive slave, and she had the additional legal protection of being officially emancipated by the state within months of her escape. Unlike those who fled from southern slavery, Truth was able to remain in her home state as a free woman. While denied full citizenship rights in that state, Truth nonetheless claims herself a citizen of New York and exercises legal prerogatives in a variety of contexts.
Truth's multiple approaches to personal and political ends, to social change, can be represented in her courtroom battles. These efforts also suggest a broader image of the struggles of African American women in the nineteenth century. Truth successfully initiates court action in three different cases: to free her son; to sue a respected white couple for libel; and to charge a conductor with assault and battery. Time and again, she is willing to use the law even as she challenges its legitimacy. While Truth was not legally the defendant in the cases …