While everyone thinks of Thomas Gray as Nat Turner's lawyer, the person who was listed in court records as Turner's lawyer was a more obscure figure: James Strange French. He was a recent graduate of William and Mary French who had been trained in law by his uncle, Robert Strange, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Later in life, Strange served as a senator from North Carolina. I've crossed paths with Robert Strange before, as a graduation speaker at UNC. Although French is an obscure member of the cast of characters in the Nat Turner rebellion, he represented more slaves than any other lawyer in the dozens of trials in the wake of the rebellion. Some people, including my friend and Durham neighbor Sharon Ewell Foster, have drawn attention to French before.
What do we make of lawyers who represented enslaved people? I remember decades ago when I was a student in Eben Moglen's legal history class he asked whether representing an enslaved person might expand the moral horizon of the lawyers. I wrote some about this in the context of my colleague Dana Remus' article "Advocacy Revalued" last fall.
It may very well be that as lawyers saw the humanity of enslaved people they changed their values. But it may also be that lawyers who already valued humanity -- and the idea that the legal system should provide some minimal protection to enslaved people and maybe should also try to constrain the behavior of slaves' owners -- were particularly drawn to representing slaves. Maybe that is what happened in French's case, or at least part of what happened.
We know too little about this important person, but there are a few intriguing data points. French was one of the local militia response to the rebellion. That was not a good sign for the slaves he would represent -- for he first appears on the stage of the rebellion in opposition. But that might very well have been said about almost all white male in Southampton. It's difficult to peer into the brief trials to get a sense of what French did -- though he was successful in getting some of the accused slaves acquitted and also having others convictions commuted from death to transportation outside the state. French, joined by the other defense lawyers, interrogated the young slave girl Beck, to inquire about whether she had been promised anything in exchange for her testimony against slaves. And later -- as Scott French tells in his magnificent book The Rebellious Slave -- French helped save the life of a slave who had first been sentenced to death, then escape from the jail in Sussex County. When that slave resurfaced a few years later French led the effort to have the slave's sentence commuted to transportation outside the state.
But what maybe interests me the most about James French is that he published a novel a few years after the trials, Elkswatawa, or, The prophet of the West. It is mostly a tale of adventure and romance in the old northwest (and Edgar Allan Poe didn't like it one bit). Elkswatawa portrays sympathetically Native American claims to land around the time of Tecumseh's war. The narrator was a young lawyer educated at William and Mary who tired of the practice of law. I guess it doesn't take a lot of abstraction to see French's novel as representing his own life and ideas.
In the 1840s French, who at this point ran a hotel in Norfolk, was a prominent proponent of mesmerism. So we have a lawyer turned novelist and experimenter with psychology. What was going on? Well, French was a free thinker and perhaps over time migrated further from his origins in a law and towards unusual ideas -- from the world of slavery, hierarchy, and economic reality of Petersburg where he grew up and re-imagining it as a world of spirituality. And this stuff about spirituality reminds me a lot of Edgar Allan Poe's "Tale of the Ragged Mountain." I've said it before -- and will say it again now -- that is one weird short story. And of course Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym has some elements in common with Nat Turner's rebellion. (But just to be clear on this, Poe was proslavery, which I'm not so sure I can still say for French.)
I talk a lot more about French and his cases in "The Nat Turner Trials," which is up on ssrn. The image is of the home of James Rochelle, the clerk of Southampton County Court, in Jerusalem (now Courtland).