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A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker.

[Detail] A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker


Irony and Humor

The tone of most of the documents in Slaves and the Court, 1740-1860, is intensely serious. Although this is not surprising given the subject matter, one attorney represented in the collection did choose to use humor in his presentation. H.S. Fitch, arguing for the prosecution in a fugitive slave case, mocks the opposing lawyers, defendants, and witnesses. Consider the following:

Gentlemen, the case has at length reached the jury. I congratulate you upon the fact. The somewhat supercilious air of superiority, and unnecessary confidence in his own ability, with which the learned counsel who opened for the defense announced that he would probably advance such legal objections as would prevent the ease from ever reaching its present stage, becomes, in view of the success which has attended his efforts, decidedly refreshing.
The learned counsel, (Mr. Arnold,) "apprehended" that we would fail in this point, and he "apprehended" we would fail in that point; and, in fact, he was tremulously apprehensive lest the entire prosecution should prove a failure. It doubtless afforded him pleasure to ascertain how unfounded were all his apprehensions.

(Pages 3 and 4, “Argument of H.S. Fitch, Esq.”)

Analyze Fitch's argument, using the following questions:

  • How did Fitch use humor in his closing argument?
  • Why might Fitch have chosen to mock his opponents?
  • After a long trial, how would you react to this approach if you were serving on the jury? Might some people be offended by the use of humor in connection with a serious topic? Would they be justified?
  • Rewrite portions of the argument to make the same points without using humor. Which approach do you prefer? Why?