In an 1850 pamphlet, “The Law-Abiding Conscience and the Higher Law Conscience,” the Reverend Samuel T. Spear observed, “Every professed martyr virtually appeals to posterity and to God, to review his case, and settle the question whether he was a martyr or a fool.” Spear was a preacher with a sense of humor, but he was also a critic of his culture, thinking about law and religion in antebellum America. In that weird society, with its secularizing institutions and its fantastic carnivals of spiritual awakening, professions of martyrdom had become so common, so conventionalized, that Spear could analyze them as a genre. He saw martyrdom as a style of protest directed toward the legal system (especially toward the fugitive slave codes), animated by a double faith in God and in something called posterity. The self-styled martyrs appealed from the courts of law not only to the Almighty but also to a future public—one that their words would help to summon into being. The martyrs’ claims to justice would be decided by a divine authority and a spectral community.
Professions of martyrdom were accompanied by some fabulous maledictions. When the convict known as “the celebrated and beautiful Mrs. Ann Carson” was locked up in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail for conspiracy, counterfeiting, and other crimes, she offered up this prayer: “Justice has with her sword severed me from society. I stand alone, a blank in creation; but let those who have brought me to this, tremble for the day of retribution will arrive, and that God that sees in secret will amply avenge me in public on mine enemies.” When the young divinity student and poet, George Thompson, was condemned to a Missouri prison for aiding fugitives from slavery in the 1840s, he tried his hand at the same genre. This was Thompson’s prophesy of vengeance: “I shall be acquitted at the great and supreme tribunal of the universe. Then my dear Savior will act as judge, and the world will see and acknowledge the justness of my cause. Then those who are now my enemies, and rejoice and clap their hands at my condemnation, will be covered with shame.” When we think about the politics of martyrdom in antebellum America, we might think first of sentimental antislavery literature, with its vivid displays of suffering and its cries from the heart. These cursing martyrs weren’t asking for pity. They prayed to a God of wrath, and they foresaw the coming of a vengeful posterity.
The profession of martyrdom, with its visions of divine retribution and public shame, was an appeal for justice, but it was also a bid for power. Giving voice to suffering seemed somehow to endow the speaker with affective intensities and moral authority. Like everything else in antebellum America, these conflicts were deeply racialized. In a forthcoming book, Mark J. Miller describes the era’s white martyrology as a tradition of appropriation, reinforcing the racial hierarchy that was taken for granted even in abolitionist circles. The violence endured by enslaved blacks—the abjection of the whipping post or the auction block—might be used to inspire sympathy. The martyrdom of white men, though, was cast as voluntary self-sacrifice, preserving the sovereign and heroic autonomy of the one who suffered. There is some masochism in such maledictions. Appearing to assent to their own imprisonment, even to death, the martyrs turn their criminal trials into contractual agreements. They seem to invite the law into violence, to be enlarged and animated, not dispossessed, by their ordeals.
The antebellum period’s martyr figures were commonly seen as atavistic zealots, deranged by enthusiasm. In 1831, the missionaries Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler were arrested for remaining in the Cherokee territories without permission from the state of Georgia. They knew that they were in violation of a new statute, but they refused to recognize its validity. They decided to take their case to the United States Supreme Court, and if they couldn’t get any relief there, to the Creator. In sentencing the missionaries to a term in state prison, a Georgia judge took the time to criticize their “misguided zeal of suffering ignominy for ‘conscience sake.’” “Wonderful infatuation!” he went on. “It was greatly to have been hoped, under the sensible and reflecting character of our institutions, the days of fanaticism in this sober country, had long since been numbered.” From the point of view of the court, the missionaries’ inspired resistance was the relic of an unenlightened, fanatical past.
In The Oracle and the Curse, I argued the opposite, that we should see martyrdom in antebellum America as something new: the dialectical counterpart of the “sensible and reflecting” institutions in which the judge placed his hopes. Here, I’m expanding the argument and attending to some different martyrs. In the first half of the nineteenth century, American legal systems were formally secularized. The divine sanction that had once been claimed by the courts was gradually abandoned. The sentence pronounced at Worcester and Butler’s trial conformed to the new norms of rationalism. As a consequence, the legitimating power of a “higher law” was available to be picked up and wielded as an instrument of dissent, reform, and militant resistance. “With confidence we commit our cause to Him who judgeth righteously,” Worcester wrote from jail. “If we are, as we think we are, in the path of duty, though we suffer here, we shall rejoice hereafter.” The profession of martyrdom was mastered by the evangelical reform movements, but its force had less to do with any particular doctrine than with its antagonism to a legal system that seemed to have turned from the commandments of justice to the protocols of administration and calculation. The martyrs weren’t remnants; they were the unruly children of a coldly rationalized modernity.
In some ways then, the martyrs’ curses belong to the repertoire of charismatic authority, as described by Max Weber. They make their claims to legitimacy in an inspired mode, in opposition to the impersonal authority of “codes and statutes”—but these martyrs did not ascend to charismatic power through the display of personal strength. They performed their own degradation, exposing themselves as mortified creatures, gouged open, as if the voice of God were flowing through their wounds. They showed, too, that charismatic authority was not alien to a modern regime of codified law. You didn’t have to go searching for it in so-called traditional societies, or in the distant past. It was a fantasy born within sober, sensible institutions; it was their reflection and their intimate antagonist.
The divine judge to whom the martyrs appealed, the God who would turn prisoners into saints and cover their persecutors with shame, was the creature of a secular age. So was the tribunal that the martyrs called “posterity.” As Samuel Spear’s pamphlet observed, the profession of martyrdom could not legitimate itself. Its felicity depended on its reception and affirmation by a public. (Weber knew this, too. “Recognition,” he admitted, is “decisive for the validity of charisma.”) Ann Carson prayed that God would avenge her not in the afterlife but “in public.” George Thompson awaited the moment when “the world will see and acknowledge” his vindication, when his enemies would be shamed. A new kind of infrastructure allowed the martyrs to imagine that their curses would be recognized and that their prophecies might come true in this world. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the mass press emerged, expanding the networks of distribution far beyond any circle of elites, and the antebellum period’s famous martyr figures were connected to its mechanisms. Samuel Worcester, for example, had been one of the founders of the Cherokee newspaper, the Phoenix, whose circulation extended to evangelical reformers in New England. He anticipated that his prison letters would find readers who would recognize the righteousness of his cause.
Addressing the citizens in Alton, Illinois, a few days before he was murdered by a proslavery mob, the printer Elijah Lovejoy professed his willingness to suffer a martyr’s death: “by the help of God, I WILL STAND. I know I am but one and you are many. My strength would avail little against you all. You can crush me if you will; but I shall die at my post, for I cannot and will not forsake it.” The speech was reprinted in Edward Beecher’s Narrative of the Riots at Alton, which helped to generate the legend of Lovejoy’s martyrdom: “Though dead he still speaketh; and a united world can never silence his voice. Ten thousand presses, had he employed them all, could never have done what the simple tale of his death will do. Up and down the mighty streams of the west his voice will go: it will penetrate the remotest corner of our land: it will be heard to the extremities of the civilized world.” Although it seems to define the power of Lovejoy’s voice against the humble work done by the press, Beecher’s narrative is actually developing an elaborate fantasy of its own circulation and reception. The martyr’s voice, like the voice of a vengeful God, goes thundering across the landscape. A shattered and distracted population is summoned, awakened, and righteously activated. These are the visions of divinity and posterity that we encounter in the archives of martyrdom in antebellum America: of a charismatic power generated out of opposition to secular institutions, of a public called to resistance by a profession that comes echoing through space and time.