Boston, April 29, 1859
Wellington Slave Rescue Case.
At the trial of the Wellington Slave Rescue Case, at Cleveland, Ohio – thirty-seven citizens of Oberlin and Wellington being under indictment by the United States, on the charge of having illegally rescued an apprehended fugitive slave – the case for the defence was opened by Mr. Riddle. In the course of his masterly plea, he said: -
Let us look at the matter of the ‘higher law.’ I am a votary of the ‘higher law,’ and I believe that the man who has no higher moral sense than obedience to the penal laws of his country, is neither a good citizen nor a moral man. (Applause.) The principle of right and wrong is older than the laws of men; and although your may outlaw it, and enact laws in its place, it matters little. You can ask no more than that a citizen shall quietly obey the laws, or submit to the penalty. He may be wrong; but if he should happen to be right, and afterwards be found so, then the dungeon to which you would send him comes to be a luminous sanctuary, and the grave to which you would consign him comes to be a shrine to be visited as a holy spot. John fled, but from whom? By virtue of what compact does he owe service to this man, John G. Bacon? It is alleged that he owed service to this man, not by any compact, but with no contract save what Bacon entered into with himself. He was a slave because his mother was a slave. He escapes to Ohio, and is pursued. By fraud they gain possession of him. A company pursues, and rescues him from those who have thus seized him. What moral obligation have these rescuers violated?
This boy John who was destined by the great Creator to a life of slavery, ran off in direct violation of all the eternal principles which bind this glorious Union together, thus kicking his foot direct through the porcelain of the Union of this confederation. Jennings came to Oberlin in search of John. He says he has known him in Kentucky, and yet he has to send back to Kentucky for Mr. Mitchell to identify the boy. Mitchell saw him but once at Oberlin, and had never seen him before since he left Kentucky. Let it be borne in mind that at that time there existed in Oberlin a great excitement in regard to the danger in which the colored citizens of the place were living, through fear of being kidnapped. John escaped at the age of eighteen, when his personal appearance was changing every day, and yet this man Mitchell recognized him from the window of Wack’s tavern after nearly three years. He was copper colored when he left Kentucky, but black when he was found in Oberlin. He was 5 feet 8 or 10 inches in Kentucky, but 5 feet 4 or 5 inches in Oberlin. He would weigh 170 pounds at Kentucky, but 135 or 140 at Oberlin. How do these points of difference allow the supposition of the identity of the two? They claim that the boy frequently said himself that he was the slave of Bacon, but what he said can only be used as the statements of any body else could be, and not have any undue prominence. Mitchell says that at first John did not know him; but, gentlemen, when his right hand suspiciously approached his left side where a revolver was carried, then John received a sudden enlightenment, like an animal of old, of whom we read, although I admit that john was not quite an ass, and surely Mitchell was not quite an angel.
We express no evil intent toward the State of Kentucky, which holds the grave of one Clay and the home of another. Should that State be invaded tomorrow, our gallant sons would cross the Ohio to the rescue, as did the noble Kentuckians when we were in danger in olden times; but we cannot agree to their mode of recovering their fugitives, and cannot turn to and help them in the carrying out of their schemes, which we consider nefarious. The prosecution talks of disunion, and charges you with designs against the existence of this confederation, if you do not now support (whether for right or wrong) the Fugitive Slave Law. As for me, so help me the great God, if a panting fugitive should come to my house, and ask for aid, he should have it.
(Tremendous applause through the Court room.)
Judge Belden hoped that if such manifestations were repeated, all those concerned might be committed.
Judge Spaulding said, ‘Then you will have a large committal, and include some of the Counsel in the case.’
Judge Belden – ‘Why, you do not pretend to uphold it, do you?’
Judge Spaulding – ‘I do uphold and countenance it.’
Judge Belden – ‘Then you would be included in the committal.’
Judge Spaulding – ‘I should be most happy to e included in such a committal before this Court.’
Mr. Riddle closed with a brilliant peroration, having spoken about four hours and three quarters.
Judge Spaulding continued the argument for the defence by saying that, some forty years ago, he took upon himself the oath to support the Constitution of the United States – took it as did Andrew Jackson, who declared he would support it, not as others might read it, but s his own good judgment should dictate. Had Jackson done or said nothing else, he would by that have deserved eternal remembrance.
I stand here to defend a citizen who is indicted for doing what? Why, for obeying the precept of Jesus, who said, ‘When ye see a brother in prison, visit him.’ This defendant has but visited a fellow-being who was in chains; and for aiding him to gain his freedom, he is liable to incarceration in the penitentiary. The law provides that any violation of the Fugitive Slave Law shall be punished with imprisonment, and it rests within the breast of the presiding officer of this Court, should the jury render a verdict of guilty, to say whether that imprisonment shall be in the County Jail or the State Prison.
We are to-day assembled in this city of 60,000 people, and in a district where there is a majority of 30,000 against the General Government; but yet, all of these must not be considered as enemies to the country. For year I trod the steps of the Democratic party, an never left it until I refused to assent to this law under which we try this case to-day.
The defendant is said to come from Oberlin, the harbor of fugitive slaves; yet you are not here to try the people of Oberlin for their peculiar opinions. You are not to try Simeon Bushnell because he is a citizen of Oberlin, but upon the simple question of right and wrong. The gentleman (Mr. Bliss) says with a sneer, that Oberlin is a ‘higher law’ town. I do not propose to go into a theological discussion, but there is an old adage that ‘man proposes, but God disposes;’ and not eh genius of Napoleon, who blasphemously altered it to the expression, ‘I propose, and I dispose,’ could avert the destruction, which God brought down. Jefferson, the Father of Democracy, said – ‘When I reflect that God is just, I tremble for my country.’ Was not that ‘ higher law’? And does Judge Bliss think that we can scout the law of God – can carry into effect laws directly opposed to his, and say that the ‘higher law’ is nothing, when we know that we all must, ere long, bow to this same ‘higher law’? Although I do not expect to reverse the decisions, which have been issued from Federal and Superior Courts, on this question, I deem it my duty to utter at all times my views against such decisions. I take issue with the learned Judge McLean on the subject, and declare that the Constitution would never have been adopted, had the Northern people known one half of the evils that flow from it; and it was adopted under protest.
It is claimed that an excitement prevailed in the town of Oberlin in relation to the matter or returning slaves, fugitives fro service. In these latter days, the words ‘owing service’ are omitted, and the negroes are called simply ‘slaves.’ But, sir, I know very well that no man could hold the office, which you do, unless he would agree to return fugitives to slavery; and my friend Judge Belden would not hold his position, unless he had made the same agreement. He has changed rapidly in his views; for a few years ago. At a meeting at Columbus, he told me that he was a candidate for the Governorship of the State of Ohio, on the grounds of having voted for Martin Van Buren, while I, a better democrat than be, voted for Lewis Cass.
Judge Spaulding here read the following resolutions, reported to an indignation meeting held in Cleveland, soon after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, Judge Wilson being on the Committee on Resolutions: -
1. Resolved, That the passage of the Fugitive Law was an act unauthorized by the
Constitution, hostile to every principle of justice and humanity, and, if persevered in, fatal to Human Freedom.
2. Resolved, That that law strikes down some of the dearest principles upon which
our fathers predicated their right to assert and maintain their independence, and is characterized by the most tyrannical exercise of power; and that it cannot be sustained without repudiating the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence, and the principles upon which all free governments rest.
3. Resolved, That tyranny consists I the willfully violating, by those in power of
man’s natural right to personal security personal liberty, and private property; and it matters not whether the act is exercised b one man or a million of men, it is equally unjust, unrighteous, and destructive of the ends of all just governments.
4. Resolved, That regarding some portions of the Fugitive Law as unconstitutional,
and the whole of it as oppressive, unjust and unrighteous, we deem it the duty of every good citizen to denounce, oppose and resist, by all proper means the execution of said laws, and that we demand its immediate and unconditional repeal, and will not cease to agitate the question, and use all our powers to secure that object, until it is accomplished.
5. Resolved, That we recommend that a meeting of the citizens of this county be
held at Cleveland on the 26th day of October instant, to consider said law, and take such action thereon s may be deemed expedient.
(These resolutions created quite a sensation in the court-room, being thus indorsed by Judge Wilson.)
After referring to the power invested in the Federal Courts, Judge Spaulding concluded a long a very able defence by eloquently saying:
‘And had I the distinguished honor, sir, to occupy the seat, which is so eminently filled by your Honor, full long should I hesitate from declaring that to be law which so clearly contravenes the solemn compact of the Constitution, as well as the earlier Ordinance of 1787, violates every right of free citizens, and stains with an ineradicable blot the statute books of our country, not to say defies the laws of Him who is higher than the highest. Nor should I hesitate to pronounce the infamous act of 1850, what it most clearly and unquestionably is, utterly unconstitutional, null and void, though thus doing I should risk and impeachment from the Senate of my country. And, sir, should such an impeachment thus fall to my lot, I should proudly embrace it as a greater honor than has ever been bestowed upon any officer of these United States.’
FThe case of Bushnell went to the jury on Friday night, and, as might have been expected, (being a packed jury, composed exclusively of Border-Ruffian Democrats!) they returned a verdict of guilty!
As soon as the case of Bushnell was disposed of, the Court proceeded to take up the next case. The District Attorney called the name of James Langston. Judge Spaulding objected that they were not ready in that case, and suggested that of Prof. Peck. District Attorney Belden insisted on Langston.
Judge Spaulding then objected that the jury was a struck jury for the particular case of Bushnell, and claimed a new jury.
Judge Wilson said the jury was selected for the term, and it is proper they should try all the cases.
Mr. Backus insisted that the jury had made up their minds on all the propositions, and to send the other accused to such men for trial was monstrous. He never saw a case in which the defendant had to go to a jury, which had just disposed of a precisely similar case. If forced to go into a trial before such a jury, no one of the defendants would so stultify himself as to defend his case before men who had already made up their minds. It was unheard of injustice, and an outrage on the sense of justice of the civilized world.
Judge Spaulding announced the determination of the accused neither to defend themselves nor appear by attorney before such a jury. They surrendered themselves to the Court, and asked that their recognizances be struck off. Refusing to accept the offer to let them go on their word, they were committed to jail, but were treated with great consideration. The Court, on Monday, granted a new jury, which was empanelled to try the case of Langston.