Although the story of abolitionist appeals to the court of public opinion begins in the early 1830s, jumping ahead to autumn 1850 can help us to appreciate the profound change in Northern attitudes toward slavery, print, and law that took place over the course of the antebellum period. On 26 September 1850, just after the passage of the nation's controversial new Fugitive Slave Act, James Hamlet was arrested in New York City.1 A “man of a dark complexion, who followed the honest vocation of a laborer,” Hamlet “was seized whilst in pursuit of his lawful business” and “dragged before one of the tools of tyranny,” the New York Atlas reported in eye-catching front-page coverage of the case.2 Marshaling both words and images to depict the alleged fugitive's odyssey through New York's “Halls of Justice,” the Sunday paper assured its readers the following week that “Hamlet, in the engraving before us, is placed in the position he was reputed to be in, when he was taken before the Commissioner of the United States”—emphasizing that the “scene is taken from real life.”3 It is safe to assume, however, that James Hamlet, a porter for the Tilton and Maloney firm, did not walk the streets of New York dressed only in a loincloth, as he is portrayed in the Atlas engravings (figs. 1 and 2).
The Atlas's repeated claims to verisimilitude and the illustrations themselves begin to make sense, however, when viewed from the perspective of the paper's readers—and particularly if we take into account those readers' attitudes about African Americans, slavery, and law. For even if the portrait of the kneeling, half-naked black man looked nothing like the real James Hamlet, it would have matched many Northerners' mental image of “The Slave.” That image had its material origins in the seal that British pottery manufacturer and reformer Josiah Wedgwood had begun producing for the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the winter of 1787–88 (fig. 3).4 Like the first Atlas engraving, versions of the Wedgwood seal bore the slogan, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Reproduced on everything from sugar bowls, snuff