The Oberlin Evangelist
May 25, 1859
Oberlin College, May, 1859
The Faculty and Resident Trustees of Oberlin College, to their Friends and patrons throughout the Country.
It has doubtless come to the knowledge of most or all of you, that one of our Professors, and a number of our students and our neighbors, have been indicted for the rescue of an alleged fugitive slave, and are now in jail awaiting their trial before the U.S. District Court. Two have been tried and have received their sentence.
Under these circumstances we think it due to ourselves, to our patrons, and especially to the parents and friends of the multitude of young men and women attending this school, to communicate to them our sentiments and course in regard to this matter.
It is well known that from the foundation of this Institution, and the first settlement of this place, colored residents and colored students have had in all respects equal rights and privileges with whites. Or this reason an unusual number of this class of people have here sought a refuge from prejudice and oppression.
Though we do not encourage fugitives from Southern bondage to tarry with us, but rather advise them to hasten onward to a land where they may be truly free, yet we do not repel them; but, according to God’s law for fugitives, we “let them dwell among us in that place which liketh them best; we do not oppress them,” and we do “ not deliver to his master the servant that has escaped from his master unto us.” If we have special sympathy for any class of men, it is for those who, through much tribulation, have escaped from a bondage worse than death, and now mourn for precious friends still left in chains, whom they would much rather have left in their graves. These being our feelings and views, you can judge with what concern our people watched the movements of a Deputy Marshal placed in this village, with no apparent business but slave-hunting; and of certain characters from the South, quartered among the most pro-slavery men in this community, and prowling around among our colored people at midnight. And you can imagine the excitement, which prevailed when the alarm was given that a colored man had been decoyed out of town and clandestinely seized by ruffians, who were hurrying him on to the South.
Without concert, without arrangement, there was a spontaneous rush as at the cry of fire, and in a few hours the poor man was rescued, without blood, and without a blow.
We are aware that some of our young men – as true and loyal as ever adorned our country or graced her halls of learning – went to Wellington on that day and were more or less engaged in the rescue. No one asked of us leave of absence: the thrilling emergency of saving a fellow-man supposed to have been kidnapped seemed to supersede College rules and we have felt under no obligation to call them to account.
Knowing in common with all our fellow-citizens that the enslaving of human beings is a fearful crime against God and man, and that those who make it their business to hunt fugitives, are the vilest o enslavers, we hold it to be a solemn duty to do all we safely can, and even to run many risks, and make many sacrifices “to deliver him that is spoiled from the oppressor.” We believe it would have been inexcusable cowardice and wickedness in our people to have allowed this poor man to be kidnapped and dragged into bondage without an effort to save him.
We do not believe there was, in this case, a design on the part of the rescuers to violate even the fugitive slave act, because it was generally believed that the man was kidnapped, and that the paper by which his captors held him, was illegal.
But we wish it also to be understood that we do not regard that enactment as of any binding force whatever. We think it right and proper to escape its penalty when we can consistently with duty, but its precept we cannot regard without renouncing Christianity and offending God.
We believe this enactment on many accounts to be unconstitutional, and utterly subversive of the fundamental principles of our government. Inasmuch as we know it to be superlatively wicked, the highest obligation s to our country, and to God, requires us to treat it as null and void. It is not from any disregard for the government or the laws of our country that we so act; we allow none to exceed us in deference and respect for the laws; but it is because we do truly respect law and most devoutly love our country, that we disobey this enactment which is no law; which demoralizes our Federal courts, transforms U. S. Judges – the anointed ministers of justice – into priest of the grim Moloch of Slavery; debases U.S. Marshals into slave-hunting blood-hounds, makes upright men ashamed to be magistrates, attorneys or marshals of Federal tribunals; outrages the moral sentiments of the free North; demands, not only that we should, without resistance, see our unoffending fellow-men fettered and dragged into hopeless bondage, but that on call we should assist in the nefarious villainy – which in short seeks to defend, aid, promote and reward atrocious wickedness, to debauch the virtue of the people and to crush out of their hearts the love of liberty.
It was an insult to all the virtuous people of the U.S. to enact such a statute, it is an insult to our federal courts to expect them to accept it as law, it is an insult to our federal attorneys to expect them to prosecute violations of it, it is an insult to a virtuous grand jury to ask it to indict under it, it is an insult to marshals to require them to serve writs under it, it is an insult to a traverse jury to ask them whether they have scruples of conscience against finding a verdict under its atrocious provisions. Its whole tendency is to sink into an abyss of infamy all who have any part of lot in its objects and aims.
When we remember that our fathers, appealing to the bloody arbitrament of war for the establishment of their liberty, vindicated their cause by referring to the inalienable right of all mankind to life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and called on the Supreme Ruler of the universe to bear witness to the uprightness of their intentions, and laid tin the scale with their swords, their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, we cannot regard this bill in any better light than as the result of a foul conspiracy to debase the whole North, private citizens as well as officials of the general government, into traitors to the sworn principles of the Fathers, and panders to the most loathsome and abhorrent institution that ever disgraced this sinful world. The foundations of all reverence for righteous government and righteous laws must crumble in our souls before we can obey such an enactment as this.
The consistent enemies of this monstrous bill will always be found the most loyal supporters of the government in all things which are not plainly in conflict with the dictates of their conscience, and their reverence for the Most High. In any really doubtful case they would be the last to substitute their opinions for the decisions of the legislatures and courts of their country. It is not a revolution but a purification of the government at which they aim. But if this is not effected, they dare not, on their allegiance to Heaven they dare not participate in the oppression of their weak and unoffending fellow-men. They must do what they fitly can to help and protect them.
We deny the right of any government to punish us for this. The attempt to do it debases the courts and tends to demoralize and degrade the whole people. It is a horrible thing for rulers to be a terror to good works, avengers to execute wrath o those that do good. It is horrible that the vilest evil-doing should have praise and comfort and co-operation from the powers that be. It is a subversion of the whole end of government, and transforms that into a curse, which ought to be an unmixed blessing; and changes the minister of God, which by his office every magistrate is, into a dark minister of Satan.
For such sentiments and corresponding actions, we are made the objects of a bitter persecution by the Federal Court of this District. We are indicted by a grand Jury, every one of whom belongs to the party in power, and tried before a traverse jury of the same stamp, and every impartial citizen is excluded from the jury by the first question, “Have you any conscientious scruples against convicting a man for a violation of the fugitive slave law?” A trial before such a court is a miserable farce; and unless we are relieved by the courts of the State there is no prospect of relief. The Supreme Court of Ohio on application made, refused the writ of Habeas Corpus on the ground that sentence has not been pronounced; and what our State Courts may do in the future, remains to be seen.
How long this persecution is to continue we have no means of knowing. If the extreme penalty should be executed upon all the accused, and other victims should follow, it would have no tendency to convince us of the righteousness of the fugitive act, nor can we give any guaranty that it would render man hunting in our community more sage or more successful. We see little hope of justice or of respite, while men, solemnly bound by their oath of office to act with due regard to the account they must render to God, can plead the sanctity of that oath as binding them to execute the penalties of an enactment which every body knows to be wicked and oppressive in the extreme; and especially since we have no appeal but to a higher court which has felt bound by the same oath to give authority to the sentiment that “negroes have not rights which white men are bound to respect.”
Our citizens are sometimes counseled to resort to their own strength for protection, and to take the law into their own hands. But we see no hope in this direction. Unless help should yet come from the state courts, we see no escape from the persecution so vigorously and unscrupulously commenced.
Under these circumstances we ask your sympathy, our encouragement and your prayers. Our trials will, we trust be borne with cheerful patience, if by that means we can see the country aroused to shake off the tyranny now resting upon her, and especially if we can see the mass of the people in the Free States making common cause with all the oppressed of the land.
In this view of the subject, we cannot overlook the remarkable coincidence, that at the same moment when the Federal Courts at the North are inflicting severe penalties on those who, under the impulses of humanity, have rescued a fellow-man from bondage, at the South the same courts are acquitting the pirates engaged in stealing men fro their native land. What can we see in this coincidence but the hand of an overruling Providence, compelling us to make the cause of the trodden-down our own. What can be more apparent than that the struggle between Slavery and Freedom in this country must soon terminate in the downfall of one or the other? Is not this the time for a general rally of the Friends of Freedom to cast off the yoke of oppression, and accomplish the hope of the Fathers of this Republic?
Let there be such an expression of Christian indignation against this fugitive act, as shall render odious all its supporters, and effectually prevent its execution in any part of the Free States. If the indictment and malicious prosecution of more than thirty virtuous citizens, for an act of humanity should not call forth such an expression, when, we ask, will be the time to act?