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Juridical Rhetoric in the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery

66 Pages Posted: 29 Sep 2003  

Jeannine DeLombard

University of Toronto


This article addresses a central but overlooked contradiction in antebellum American culture: at a time when blacks were prohibited from testifying against whites in many American courtrooms, former slaves consistently presented themselves in print as, in the words of Frederick Douglass, "eye-witness[es] to the cruelty of slavery" and offered their personal narratives as, according to Harriet Jacobs, "testimony" to "what Slavery really is." Fashioning themselves and their anti-slavery writing in these terms, the article contends, formerly enslaved African-Americans like Douglass and Jacobs participated in a widespread antebellum tendency to figure the debate over slavery in legal language. Imagining the national slavery controversy as an ongoing criminal trial occurring in a vast courtroom, those who contributed to that debate depicted slavery as a crime, slaveholders as perpetrators and defendants, slaves as victims and eye-witnesses, white abolitionists as advocates for the slave, and the American reading public as a court of public opinion. Viewing each of these roles in light of changes in early American jurisprudence, as well as from the vantage point of specific legal crises over slavery, the article explores how figurative appropriations of legal rhetoric structured race relations in the print debate over slavery between 1830-1860.

Suggested Citation

DeLombard, Jeannine, Juridical Rhetoric in the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery. Available at SSRN: or

Jeannine DeLombard (Contact Author)

University of Toronto ( email )

Department of Statistical Sciences
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3E6 M5S 3G8

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