Demanding a Voice among the Pettifoggers: Sojourner Truth as Legal Actor

Article excerpt

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). …