Boston, May 27, 1859
Letter from Hon. J.R. Giddings
My Dear Friend: - You ask my opinion in regard to the past action, and the future course of the Oberlin prisoners, now in jail at Cleveland, for violating the fugitive slave enactment.
That measure was passed under the influence of threats and intimidations. Disunion and bloodshed were proclaimed as the alternative in case of refusal. Before such insolence, Northern members bowed in unmanly submission, surrendering their own individuality, the rights of their States, and the honor of their nation. The page of our political history that records the passage of that act will long be read with mortification and regret. I constitutes a legislative incident in that was so long waged, and carried on by the party now in power against the colored men of our nation; a war in which me, women and children have been butchered in cold blood for their love of liberty; a war in which men, women and children have been butchered in cold blood for their love of liberty; a war in which free persons are enslaved, and slaves are murdered even upon the soil of Ohio with perfect impunity; a war which subjects colored people to a commerce, from the horrors of which they shrink, preferring death by their own hand rather than meet its tortures; a war in which mothers are driven to the horrible choice of slaying their own children rather than to permit them to live, and become subject to the degradation that awaits them in life. This war is sometimes called ‘piratical,’ but I have yet to find the record of pirates who doomed their victims to death, merely for their love of liberty. It is a slander upon piracy to compare this war with that in which they slay their victims for the comparatively excusable purpose of obtaining money. In this war more than twenty thousand human victims are annually sacrificed.
This slave enactment, under which our friends are imprisoned, was passed in order to involve the people of the free States n this guilt; for the purpose of making them accessories to such crimes. It was passed by a Locofoco Congress. A Locofoco Marshal selects a Locofoco Grand Jury to find an indictment drawn by a Locofoco Attorney, to be tried by a Locofoco traverse jury packed for the very purpose of conviction, before a Locofoco Judge, appointed by a Locofoco President, confirmed by a Locofoco Senate, for the purpose of enforcing obedience to this law.
In disregarding this law, the prisoners did right. Their error consisted in sparing the lives of the slave-catchers. Those pirates should have been delivered over to the colored men, and consigned to the doom of pirates, which should have been speedily executed. You are aware that this is the doctrine, which I proclaimed I Congress. I adhere to it. Had the prisoners executed the slave-catchers promptly, it would have taught the administration a lesson not soon to be forgotten. We should have been no more troubled with that class of miscreants. The would have learned better than to show themselves among an intelligent people who know their rights, and dare maintain them. But in rescuing their fellow-man from the fangs of these bloodhounds, the prisoners did right. Present and coming generations will bless them for it. It was a high moral duty, the exercise of a virtue, which sheds a halo of glory around the memories of our republican fathers. When arrested for such an act, they did well in refusing to give bail: when brought into Court, they did right in refusing to give bail: and in my opinion they cannot now recede fro the manly position which they have assumed. By these noble acts they have inscribed their names upon a most important page of our history. They no longer act for themselves in this business, but for justice, for liberty, for the cause of freedom. The eyes of the nation are upon them. They should bear in mind the character of the people of this portion of our gallant State. They should remember the pilgrim fathers from whom they have descended. Cleveland is now the Boston of 1775, and I trust her sons will meet the responsibilities thrown upon them with becoming firmness.
As to the future, I see no other course for the prisoners than patiently to await events. Their counsel will apply to the Supreme Court of our State for a habeas corpus whenever sentence shall be pronounced upon any of their number.
I have great confidence in the Judges composing that Court. But should they prove unequal to the occasion, the case will then be fully made up, and the appeal must then be taken to that highest of earthly Tribunals, the source of all political power. The people finding this government to have become ‘destructive of the lives, the liberties, and the happiness of its citizens, will alter or abolish, it; and organize its power in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.’
This duty, so solemnly enjoined upon us by the founders of our government, in that immortal charter of American liberty to which for almost a century we have been accustomed to look for instruction and direction in regard to our rights, will not be neglected.
Yours for Liberty and the Constitution.
Hon. Ralph Plumb.