Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture by Jeannine Marie DeLombard

By Jeannine Marie DeLombard

America's felony recognition used to be excessive through the period that observed the imprisonment of abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, the execution of slave progressive Nat Turner, and the hangings of John Brown and his Harpers Ferry co-conspirators.

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19 Another twenty years would pass before abolitionists met real success in their attempts to braid their antislavery principles together with both strands of Jacksonian democracy, freedom of the press and trial by jury. Turning to Boston during the fugitive slave crisis of the 1850s, the remainder of the chapter analyzes the movement’s persistent efforts to construct print as an alternative to the nation’s increasingly compromised courts of law. ’’ In the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Law, a range of print and legal sources, from newspaper engravings and trial testimony to sentimental fiction and Henry David Thoreau’s ‘‘Slavery in Massachusetts,’’ depicted the American courthouse as no longer the temple of justice it had once been but rather as a forceful symbol of the Slave Power.

Under such a legal regime, calling slaveholding a crime was a highly charged rhetorical gesture. ’’ 92 This was because, as early national legal theorist James Wilson had explained in a paraphrase of Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, ‘‘In the social contract, the party injured transfers to the publick his right of punishment, and . . ’’ 93 By contrast, he noted, in civil cases ‘‘the juridical balance . . 95 Offering Introduction 15 much more than a challenge to ‘‘the Dangerous Tendency . .

These modifications, as the following chapters will reveal, offered competing visions of American citizenship by imagining different forms of legal inclusion—or exclusion—for African Americans. Part 1 tells the story of how early abolitionists deployed print tactics to decriminalize both the antislavery movement and enslaved African Americans in the eyes of the Northern reading public. Centering on two pivotal moments in the antislavery campaign, the early 1830s and the early 1850s, chapter 1 examines how, by aligning their movement with those core civil liberties of freedom of speech and trial by jury, abolitionists effected a radical transformation in public perception regarding the correct relationship among print, law, and antislavery agitation.

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Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture by Jeannine Marie DeLombard
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