The Cleveland Daily Herald
Cleveland, April 26, 1859
The Application for Habeas Corpus in the Rescue Cases.
The application to the Supreme Court of Ohio, for a writ of habeas corpus, on behalf of the gentlemen now in prison in Cleveland for an alleged rescue of a fugitive slave at Oberlin, was argued yesterday. Rufus P. Spalding appeared for the prisoners, and the U.S. District Attorney, Mr. Belden, of Canton, assisted by Noah H. Swayne, of this city, for the United States Government.
Mr. Spalding opened the case, and consumed the whole of the forenoon and a large part of the afternoon session of the Court in a matured argument.
He contended that Congress had no power to enact either the fugitive slave law of 1793 or of 1850, but that if it was conceded or decided that the Federal Constitution gave Congress power to enact a law for the reclamation of fugitives from justice, then it transcended its power in the enactment of 1850.
Mr. Spalding traced the history of the formation of the Constitution, and claimed that the clause respecting “persons owning service” was understood then, and ought by any fair construction to be understood now, not as conferring on Congress power to enact fugitive slave laws, but simply as a compact between the States that they would not exercise their sovereign power to prevent the reclamation of fugitives from service.
He claimed, in view of all the responsibilities in the case, Congress had no more power to enact a law for the arrest and return of fugitive slaves than for the arrest and return of a runaway horse. Roger Sherman, of Rhode Island, asserted that doctrine in the convention, which formed the Federal Constitution, and the clause which, it was claimed, authorized the law of 1850, would never have been adopted in that convention, if it had not been the general belief, South as well as North, that slavery was a temporary evil. The people would not have ratified the Constitution containing that clause, if leading men had not insisted upon it that no difficulty grow out of the clause in question, because slavery was necessarily a temporary institution. So strong was the sentiment in the Constitutional Convention that the phrase “legal service” was rejected, and in its place the words “service under the laws thereof” inserted.
There was no difficulty in reasoning, upon almost any other subject than this one of negro slavery. It would seem that men were blind on this infernal subject, but to him it was clear that only a fair knowledge of the English language and ordinary common sense was required to understand that under the Constitution of the United States, Congress could exercise no power imposing pains and penalties on citizens of the States for doing what was neither in violation of the laws of those States, nor of the laws of God. Whatever power there was belonged to the States. They had never delegated any part of it to Congress.
He asked that the Supreme Court of Ohio should critically examine all the questions involved in the application now made to it. Let the whole responsibility be met. He planted himself, as counsel for the prisoners, on the Constitution of the United States, and of the State of Ohio, and there bid defiance to any constructionists. If citizens were to be confined for acts of benevolence, let it be done in a constitutional manner. It was important to the people of Ohio that they should know what rule of action was imperative upon them. Wisconsin had boldly taken its position. The U.S. Supreme Court had reversed the decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but the Wisconsin Legislature had instructed the Court to maintain its position. He had no doubt of the final result. There was a growing sentiment that State rights must be maintained.
Mr. Spalding read numerous speeches and historical statements in support of the positions we have reported, and concluded by demanding that as the U.S. District Court was acting without jurisdiction, the citizens in its custody should be discharged.
Mr. Spalding was responded to by the District Attorney, Mr. Belden. At the conclusion of his argument the Court adjourned till 9 o’clock this morning, when Mr. Swayne will speak.
Mr. Belden understood that there was no question before the court but the simple one of the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. If that law was constitutional, the prisoners were properly in custody.
Mr. Spalding said he rested the case on that point, but had designed to call the attention of the Court to the fact that the ordinance of 1787 made a discrimination respecting fugitives from service, in one of the original thirteen States.
Mr. Belden said that the ordinance of 1787 was superseded by the Constitution of the United States, and had no vitality but such as was given it by acts of Congress. He would not stop to argue that point. He would confine himself to the question – Will the Supreme Court of Ohio allow a writ of habeas corpus in favor of individuals held under a law of the United States? He would present authorities and argue that State courts cannot interfere with Federal officers, who held persons in custody under the fugitive slave law.
Against the position of the counsel for the prisoners were authorities of State and National Courts of Legislatures and of Executives. – He had but one decision in his favor, and that was by a divided Court. History was against the argument of the opposing counsel as well as the authority of Courts. The Constitution of the United States was obligatory alike in all the States, and until modern agitations prevailed, the exclusive right of United States Courts in cases under examination, was not questioned. Mr. Belden deprecated earnestly a condition of things in which State Courts would conflict with each other and with the U.S. Courts in expounding the federal constitution.
He held that Congress had no power over slavery, and no power to enlarge or limit freedom – that eh Scripture doctrine “do unto others as you would be done by,” did not forbid slavery – that the demand of the opponents of the fugitive slave law for trial by jury was preposterous, and that when men turned up their noses and declared the law obnoxious, he had only to say it is the law. It is in the Constitution – let the laws be maintained.
The argument of Mr. Swayne will be heard this morning with much interest. We will give our readers the points presented in our next issue, but may thereafter publish more in detail the arguments of counsel on both sides of this important case. –
Columbus Jour. 26th.