During the three decades leading up to the Civil War, slavery was on trial in the United States. The legal status of the South's peculiar institution was placed on trial every time slave cases appeared on federal and state dockets, as lawyers, judges, and juries worked out the technicalities of American slave law. From the imprisonment of abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison for libel and the execution of slave revolutionary Nat Turner for insurrection in the early 1830s to the trials of John Brown and his Harpers Ferry co-conspirators for treason in late 1859, numerous cases involving slavery became causes célèbres in the antebellum United States. Throughout the period, throngs of men and women crowded courtrooms, overflowing into the hallways and the streets outside. Countless others followed the most minute details of famous cases through lengthy trial transcripts published in newspapers and pamphlets. Still others read portrayals of notorious cases in poetry and fiction.
Outside the nation's jammed courthouses, slavery was on trial in another sense, as a new interracial cadre of abolitionists redirected the legal tactics of earlier reformers into the mass medium of print, converting antebellum print culture itself into an alternative tribunal. In this legally saturated climate, those who wished to capture their audiences' attention resorted to the language of criminal litigation, depicting the slavery controversy as a vast, ongoing trial. But unlike actual court cases, in which enslaved people, Southern slaveholders, and Northern abolitionists tumbled about in a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of legal positions, each of the participants in this imagined trial occupied a fixed role. Figuring slavery as a crime, those who conjured this tribunal consistently portrayed slaveholders as perpetrators and defendants, slaves as victims and witnesses, white abolitionists as advocates for the slave, and the American reading public as a court of public opinion.1
Adopting this juridical rhetoric, former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs portrayed themselves as “eye-witness[es] to the cruelty” of