The 1859 Oberlin Trial: A Victory for the Higher Law

By: TJ Martinell

Months prior to John Brown’s infamous 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, a trial took place rooted in the same issues of slavery and federal enforcement that, while ultimately inconsequential in shaping future debate, is a historical event worth remembering.

The incident and the subsequent trial are documented in “The Oberlin Fugitive Slave Rescue: A Victory for the Higher Law” by Steven Lubet, a Williams Memorial Professor of Law at the Northwestern University School of Law.

In 1850, Congress passed the second Fugitive Slave Act, one of the most notorious pieces of federal legislation ever enacted. The law allowed slave owners or slavehunters to enter northern states and seize black persons to be brought back to the South as slaves. The law stripped the accused of any semblance of due process. People targeted as a runaway slaves weren’t even allowed to testify in their own defense. On top of that, slave commissioners were financially incentivized to treat every case as though the person in question was indeed a runaway slave. The policy was akin to a judge being paid for every guilty verdict rendered in his court.

In response to the Fugitive Slave Act, many northern states and localities passed personal liberty laws that blocked enforcement of the federal within their jurisdictions. By creatively denying much-needed support and resources to enforce the Fugitive Slave act,, states were extremely effective at stopping it. Meanwhile, anti-slavery sentiment was growing in many parts of the North.

That was the case with Oberlin, Ohio.

Lubet writes that by 1858, the small village had become “the most racially integrated community in the United States, with white and black citizens living, studying, and working side by side. It was therefore only natural that fugitive slaves were also drawn to Oberlin, in the hope that they could blend into the well-established free black population.”

That’s exactly what happened when runaway slave John Price arrived in Oberlin in 1856. Like all other slave fugitives, he was allowed to stay and worked as a farm laborer.

Despite his efforts to keep a low profile, Price was eventually discovered by a Kentucky slavehunter named Anderson Jennings. Jennings had come to Oberlin looking for another runaway slave belonging to his neighbor. Unable to find the other slave, Jennings decided to seize Price, claiming he was the actual slave in question. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, Price was legally unable to refute this erroneous claim.

After obtaining a federal warrant to further bolster the legality of his scheme, Jennings, along with what was in effect a posse, lured Price out of Oberlin through treachery and seized him. However, a sympathetic witness to the kidnapping hurried to Oberlin to raise the alarm.

A mob soon formed and headed to the nearby Wellington, where Jennings and others held Price with plans to transport him south via train. Held up in a hotel, Lubet writes that “for a while there was a standoff. The slave hunters could not reach the railroad station, but the rescuers—for the time being—were reluctant to storm the hotel by force.”

At this point, Oberlin resident Charles Langston, a free black man, entered the hotel and attempted to negotiate with the slave hunters.

His role in the rescue and trial would prove pivotal.

Lubet writes that although his detractors tried to paint him as the leader of the mob, “the mob itself was leaderless. The crowd of students, teachers, ministers, and townsfolk rushed headlong toward Wellington without coordination and without pausing to create any sort of organization.”

The negotiations between Langston and the slave hunters proved futile. During the talks, Langston warned that the mob was determined, saying “they will have him anyhow.”

The precise wording of this statement would be hotly contested during the trial.

Eventually the mob stormed the hotel and overpowered the slave hunters without firing a shot. Price was rescued and led out of Wellington back to Oberlin; he eventually fled to Canada.

While Oberlin celebrated the rescue with a big bonfire, the response in Washington D.C. was anything but jubilant.

Lubet writes that President James Buchanan and other key federal officials were livid, and they would not “tolerate the Oberliners’ blatant disregard for southern rights. They briefly considered bringing treason charges against the rescuers—which would have carried the death penalty—but more moderate counsel prevailed and they settled for the indictment of 37 rescuers for violating the Fugitive Slave Act.”

Each defendant was to be tried separately.

“From the nature of the indictment, it was obvious that the purpose of the prosecution was not merely to punish the actual rescuers, but also to suppress the growing abolitionist movement in northern Ohio,” Lubet writes.

The trial was a stunning example of the defense not only agreeing, but amplifying the prosecutor’s argument.

In 1859, there was a concept known as “Higher Law,” a notion that a greater moral principle trumped written laws. While embraced by abolitionists, the philosophy was firmly rejected by many, including the presiding judge Hiram Willson.

During the trial defendant Simeon Bushnell was accused of rescuing Price on that belief. Defense attorney Albert Riddle got up and admitted that he had indeed rescued Price, adding “I am perfectly frank to declare, that I am a votary of that Higher Law.”

“Riddle’s announcement had its intended effect,” Lubet writes. “The courtroom fell silent, as spectators and participants realized the impact of what they had just heard. The ideal of higher law had been preached from pulpits and repeated in the streets for almost a decade—ever since Senator William Seward had opposed the Fugitive Slave Act by appealing to a “higher law than the Constitution”—but it had not been raised as a legal defense in court.”

In the end, the argument did little to sway the judge or jury. All defendants were found guilty, as was Charles Langston, whom Riddle argued could not be tried by a jury of his peers – since under the Dred Scott decision he was not and could never be a U.S. citizen. The prosecution claimed Langston had told the slave hunters that “we will have him anyhow,” implying he was part of the mob rather than a negotiator. Though the defense argued otherwise, enough witnesses testified against him to sway the jury.

However, Langston’s sentencing was to be the most impactful. Although legally unable to testify on his own behalf during the actual trial, Willson was legally bound to ask Langston why the sentence shouldn’t be pronounced – and allow him to answer.

In his reply, Langston spoke forcefully against the courts, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the very notion of forcibly holding people in bondage, then treating them like criminals should they escape in the hope of being as free as the very people who claimed to own them. He vowed to continue helping fugitive slaves in the future.

Lubet writes that “never before had a black man so thoroughly defied a prosecutor, rebuked a judge, challenged a criminal statute, and declared his intention to continue violating the law in the future.”

What’s most remarkable is what happened next.

Willson put aside prepared remarks and criticized Langston for thinking “that nothing you might say could effect a mitigation of your sentence.” He then sentenced Langston to twenty days in prison and a fine of $100 – the absolute minimum sentence possible.

Lubet summarizes the significance of the trial’s outcome.

“It was the first time that a United States court had even partially recognized the legitimacy of civil disobedience in resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, and it was certainly the first time that a black man’s act of defiance was considered a ‘mitigating circumstance’ by a pro-slavery judge. One small victory for the higher law.”

Nullification, whether by a state government or by a jury, is based on a similar notion of Higher Law. The law as written is not always just, and depending on its severity resistance is not only justified, but necessary.

At the same time, resistance is not always easy. Many people faced prosecution or worse for their opposition to what few could deny was a grossly immoral law.

Unfortunately, the potential impact of Langston’s sentencing on the Fugitive Slave Act will never be fully known, since John Brown’s raid and the impending Civil War would overshadow those events. But it is a testament to how one man’s resolve and moral courage can sway the most unlikely of peoples, namely those who hold the power to give a law teeth or defang it.