Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture

By Jeannine Marie Delomnard | Go to book overview

2 PRECARIOUS EVIDENCE: Sojourner Truth and the Matthias Scandal

Along with his friend Henry David Thoreau's criticism of Judge Loring and William Lloyd Garrison's incineration of legal documents, the third of the “striking incidents” that Unitarian minister and abolitionist Moncure Daniel Conway recalled of the 4 July 1854 Framingham Grove gathering was the devastating dismissal of a fellow Southerner by “a very aged negro woman named 'Sojourner Truth.'”1 “Lank, shrivelled, but picturesque,” Truth sat on the platform, listening to a proslavery Carolinian whom Garrison had invited, impromptu, to address the crowd.2 “The young man complied, and in the course of his defence of slavery and affirming his sincerity, twice exclaimed, 'As God is my witness!'”—upon which, Conway recalled, Truth interjected: 'Young man….I don't believe God Almighty ever hearn tell of you!'”3 “Her shrill voice,” he recollected, “sounded through the grove like a bugle; shouts of laughter responded, and the poor Southerner could not recover from that only interruption.”4

Whether the story is accurate or, like so many other contemporary white accounts of Truth's speech, either heavily embroidered or fabricated out of whole cloth, Conway's anecdote captures the testimonial posture that authorized formerly enslaved African Americans' contributions to the debate over the South's peculiar institution. Implicitly contrasting the moral obscurity of the would-be defender of slavery with her own intimate knowledge of both “God Almighty” and bound servitude, Truth in this account trumped the Southerner's Pauline invocation of divine authority with her own authoritative self-fashioning as God's witness. Her testimonial intervention was so powerful that it provoked a crisis of conscience in the rising young minister from Virginia as well. “Did that old African Fate,” Moncure Conway wondered, “tell the truth about me also?”5

The Southerners' faltering in the face of the irresistible “truth” articulated by the slave witness indicates the moral and political potency that black testimonial speech had acquired by the late antebellum period—a potency reg

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Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I: Banditti and Desperadoes, Incendiaries and Traitors 33
  • 1: The Typographical Tribunal 35
  • 2: Precarious Evidence 71
  • Part II: At the Bar of Public Opinion 99
  • 3: Eyewitness to the Cruelty 101
  • 4: Talking Lawyerlike about Law 125
  • 5: Representing the Slave 151
  • 6: The South's Countersuit 177
  • Conclusion - All Done Brown at Last: Illustrating Harpers Ferry 199
  • Notes 223
  • Bibliography 277
  • Index 309
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