Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture

Jeannine Marie DeLombard.

Published May 2007. Order online through The University of North Carolina Press or Amazon. ISBN: 978-0-8078-5812-7.

America’s legal consciousness was high during the era that saw the imprisonment of abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, the execution of slave revolutionary Nat Turner, and the hangings of John Brown and his Harpers Ferry co-conspirators. Jeannine Marie DeLombard examines how debates over slavery in the three decades before the Civil War employed legal language to “try” the case for slavery in the court of public opinion via popular print media.

Discussing autobiographies by Frederick Douglass, a scandal narrative about Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist speech by Henry David Thoreau, sentimental fiction by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a proslavery novel by William MacCreary Burwell, DeLombard argues that American literature of the era cannot be fully understood without an appreciation for the slavery debate in the courts and in print. Combining legal, literary, and book history approaches, Slavery on Trial provides a refreshing alternative to the official perspectives offered by the nations founding documents, legal treatises, statutes, and judicial decisions. DeLombard invites us to view the intersection of slavery and law as so many antebellum Americans did–through the lens of popular print culture.


“Succeeds admirably. . . . DeLombard’s keen insights serve not as the defining word on print culture and abolition but as an inspiration to further interdisciplinary research.”
– Journal of Social History

“[A] pathbreaking work. . . . [DeLombard] ably integrates the methodologies of literature, history, and law to make a convincing argument that the debate over slavery contributed to the development of print culture in antebellum America. . . . Provides compelling evidence.”
– Civil War History

“The depth and breadth of . . . research and discerning literary comments are . . . impressive.”
– The Historian

“A worthwhile study which should be of interest to scholars from a range of disciplines including history, legal studies, literature, and American studies.”
– Southern Historian

“An intriguing examination.”
– Journal of Southern History

“The elegance of the book’s unifying legal metaphors and its intensive textual analyses generate fresh insights. . . . An accessible productive analysis that offers a valuable way to conceptualize abolitionism during an era when so many Americans judged arguments for immediate abolition of slavery to be out of order.”
– The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

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