Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture

Article excerpt

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 their trial trope as it evolved throughout the antebellum 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. …