The Oberlin Evangelist
April 27, 1859
The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case.
Tuesday, April 5th, this trial opened before the U.S. District Court for Northern Ohio, sitting in Cleveland, Judge H.V. Willson presiding. The first case put on trial was that of Simeon Bushnell, said to have driven the horse and buggy in which the alleged slave John was borne away after his release from his captors. Friday, April 15th, the tenth day, the pleas of counsel closed, the Judge briefly charged the jury and they shortly after rendered a verdict of Guilty.
The points specially urged in the defence were:
1. The law of 1793 and of 1850, known as the Fugitive Slave Law, is unconstitutional and therefore void. This was argued on the ground that the Constitution conferred on Congress no authority for such legislation, but simply precluded the Free States from applying their laws to liberate a fugitive or to prevent his being reclaimed by his owner.
Also, on the ground that the Constitution limited even this provision to slaves
escaping from the States then formed, of which number Kentucky is not one.
2. The seizure of John Price was made illegally, since it was done neither by his owner nor by his authorized attorney – no Power of Attorney being produced.
3. The warrant of the Commissioner, the only paper produced at Wellington, was informal, illegal, and void.
4. The evidence of identity is entirely defective; the slave boy said to have escaped at the age of eighteen being copper-colored, five feet and eight inches high, and weighing 170; but the boy seized being jet black, five feet and five inches high, and weighing 140. These changes, wrought by two and a half years’ residence in the North, and at such a period of life, annul the claim of identity.
5. The defendant assumed and had a right to assume that John was kidnapped, and therefore he did not “willfully and knowingly” violate the law.
These are a part, not all, of the points on which the defence rested.
The judge scarcely alluded to them however, but ruled in the strongest manner, for conviction. The jury seem also to have quite ignored all the doubts that should have inured to the benefit of the accused, and hence their verdict.
In proceeding to take up the next case in order, the judge intimated that it must be tried before the same jury who had just pronounced their verdict against Bushnell. To this the counsel for defence strenuously objected inasmuch as, on nearly all the great points, on every one save that of personal participation, they had already, under oath, formed and expressed an opinion. He declared it would be a mere mockery of justice to go before such a jury. Finally the counsel for the defence gave the Court to un-understand distinctly that if his ruling were adhered to, no defence would be attempted; no testimony would be taken for the defence; and no counsel would appear in their behalf. There, at the adjournment of Court, this question rested.
Meantime, the gentlemen indicted, and yet awaiting trial, were remanded into the custody of the U.S. Marshal, released from their former recognizance, and conducted to the County Jail, to lie there till Monday next. Twenty Christian citizens of Lorain County, than whom it would not be easy to find twenty truer, better men, or more law-abiding and virtuous citizens – marched across the public square in Cleveland from the court-room to the common jail – for no crime; for a noble Christian deed; for doing right; - this was a painfully thrilling, solemn scene. We deemed it an honor to walk side by side in that procession with those fellow-citizens and fellow-Christians. We were permitted to enter with them into that home of felons. The jailor, before opening to them his door, said, in the spirit of a true American – “Gentlemen, I open my doors to you, not as criminals for doing only what I should do myself under similar circumstances.”
Let none of our friends abroad suppose that this band of prisoners went to their confinement with saddened hearts. Far otherwise. A quiet cheerfulness pervaded the whole company. They felt that the cause of freedom in our land required so much sacrifice of them as a means of opening the eyes of the nation to the enormity of our national slave legislation, and to the tyranny of the slave power. With unfaltering courage in Him who makes the wrath of man praise himself, and committing all the issues of this case to his over-ruling providence, they look forward to the ultimate good that must accrue from these developments of the legitimate spirit and workings of American slavery.
There is a Christian side to this transaction. These men have been remembering “those in bonds as bound with them,” – visiting Jesus Christ when sick and in prison, in the person of his little ones. They have no reason to accuse themselves of causeless violence and wanton mischief in the act of rescue. Indeed, the stealthiness of the capture and the obvious failure to show legal authority gave ample reason for the conclusion that the Kentuckians were acting without even legal right.
But the general government is under the control of slaveholders. Of this fact, the nation perhaps needs more stirring proof. To bring out this proof, suffering and wrong must fall heavily somewhere on the friends of freedom and Christianity. It is well that it has fallen on those who shrink not from meeting the sacrifice. They go to that prison, sustained by faith and prayer. There Christian friends also will remember them before Him who has himself borne sorrow for others’ sins.
Strikingly significant of the men thus imprisoned, were two of the messages committed to us to bear to our home. “Get some one to take charge of my Sabbath School for me next Sabbath. Four hundred children and youth must be provide for in my absence.” “Please suggest to Prof. F.” said another, “to send a supply for the pulpit of W_______. They trust not be left destitute.”
It is rare that such messages are sent from the cells of felons, and occasioned by the mandates of the highest court of a nation, glorying in the name of Christian! H.C.