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“Law or No Law”: Abolitionist Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

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The following is a guest post by Jack Carlson, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. He is an undergraduate student studying history and political theory at Michigan State University. He has previously written Escaping Slavery: The Consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Sectional tensions over slavery in America escalated with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (9 Stat. 462), a law that inspired stiff and sometimes violent resistance from antislavery groups in the North. Passed by Congress under the Compromise of 1850, it strengthened existing fugitive slave laws by guaranteeing federal assistance to enslavers in capturing freedom seekers, thus turning the capture of freedom seekers into a federal–instead of purely state–matter. Opposition to the law took many forms early, and for abolitionists, the law provided an opportunity to put slavery at the center of national politics by committing powerful and controversial acts of resistance to its enforcement. Their efforts not only helped to drive forward sectional divisions and pave the way for civil war but also helped to secure the freedom of numerous freedom seekers threatened by enslavement.

A satire on the antagonism between Northern abolitionists on the one hand, and Secretary of State Daniel Webster and other supporters of enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Here abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (left) holds a slave woman in one arm and points a pistol toward a burly slave catcher mounted on the back of Daniel Webster. The slave catcher, wielding a noose and manacles, is expensively dressed, and may represent the federal marshals or commissioners authorized by the act (and paid) to apprehend and return fugitive slaves to their owners. Behind Garrison a black man also aims a pistol toward the group on the right, while another seizes a cowering slaveholder by the hair and is about to whip him saying, "It's my turn now Old Slave Driver." Garrison: "Don't be alarmed Susanna, you're safe enough." Slave catcher: "Don't back out Webster, if you do we're ruind." Webster, holding "Constitution": "This, though Constitutional, is "extremely disagreeable." "Man holding volumes "Law & Gospel": "We will give these fellows a touch of South Carolina."Man with quill and ledger: "I goes in for Law & Order." A fallen slaveholder: "This is all "your" fault Webster." In the background is a Temple of Liberty flying two flags, one reading "A day, an hour, of virtuous Liberty, is worth an age of Servitude" and the other, "All men are born free & equal." The print may (as Weitenkampf suggests) be the work of New York artist Edward Williams Clay. The signature, the expressive animation of the figures, and especially the political viewpoint are, however, uncharacteristic of Clay. (Compare for instance that artist's "What's Sauce for the Goose," no. 1851-5.) It is more likely that the print was produced in Boston, a center of bitter opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and 1851.
Practical illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law. E.C. del. 1851. Abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass are depicted on the left. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. // 

Among the most famous cases of resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act was the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858. Inspired by the Christiana Riot of 1851 seven years earlier, an incident in Ohio further tore apart the already delicate sectional fabric between North and South. What was later referred to as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue began when John Price, enslaved to Kentucky slaveholder John G. Bacon, escaped to Oberlin, Ohio in 1856, which the New York Herald described as “a well known anti-slavery town.” For two years, Price found refuge in Oberlin until he was arrested on September 13, 1858, by a federal marshal authorized by the 1850 Act to capture Price and return him to slavery. After being captured, Price was taken by train south of Oberlin to Wellington, Ohio, where the marshal encamped in a local hotel before planning to enter Kentucky.

Four men with hats and guns facing to the left
Posse pursuing a runaway slave/Bernarda Bryson. Bernarda Bryson. 1934 or 1935. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. //
Front page of the History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.
Screenshot of Jacob R. Shipherd, Ralph Plumb, and Henry E Peck. History of the Oberlin-Wellington rescue. 1859.

Abolitionists and other antislavery advocates in Oberlin rallied to Price’s defense. After hearing that “some one had been kidnapped,” abolitionists in the town resolved to journey to Wellington and secure his freedom. “We will have the man,” said one person defiantly, “law or no law.” After reaching the hotel in Wellington, the antislavery crowd attempted to peacefully negotiate Price’s return before resorting to force. The marshal inside the hotel refused their pleas. “Just then there was a rush—the window was broke in,” and several of the men swept into the room where Price was being held, helping him escape and return to Oberlin. Once in Oberlin, those involved in his rescue acted quickly to secure Price’s escape to Canada, where he successfully found freedom.

While the citizens of Wellington resolved that they would “resist, for the future, any and every attempt to arrest a negro at Oberlin,” authorities moved to convict those involved with the rescue. Of the people involved with Price’s escape, 37 were indicted by a federal grand jury for having violated the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Authorities in Ohio, sympathetic to the rescuers and opposed to many provisions of the Act, reacted by arresting the federal marshal and other officers who captured Price, charging them with kidnapping. By April of 1859, federal and state authorities negotiated the release of both parties, with only two antislavery men being convicted and the remaining 35 released without charges. In return, Ohio authorities dropped the charges of kidnapping.

Front page of The National Era. Link has larger image and OCR Alto
The National Era. May 5, 1859.

Defiant and determined to push back against federal enforcement of the 1850 Act, the convicted men, Simon Bushnell and Charles Langston, filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Ohio Supreme Court while claiming the Act was itself unconstitutional. The Ohio Court refused their application for writs of habeas corpus, upholding the constitutionality of the Act. Such events were not unique to Ohio; that same year, the Supreme Court struck down a similar case in Wisconsin, where the state supreme court declared the 1850 Act unconstitutional and attempted to nullify its enforcement.

Occurring at a time in which the country was fiercely divided over the issue of slavery, the events in Oberlin and Wellington became another major flashpoint of political conflict. For many involved with the abolitionist movement, the incident was a cause for celebration. Frederick Douglass described Oberlin in religious oratory as a “Gibraltar of Freedom,” a haven where the “infamous” Fugitive Slave Act could not be enforced. Others portrayed the trial against the antislavery group as evidence that “the general government is under the control of slaveholders.” At once commended by abolitionists and condemned by enslavers, the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue exposed the irreconcilable divisions between North and South that, within three years, erupted into civil war.

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  1. We enjoyed very much your article surrounding both the rescue of Mr. Price and the arrest of the U.S Marshal. After reading an article in the Nation magazine regarding reparations to those descendents of slavery. I never gave it much thought. That was until I learned that the British empire actually paid out over 20 million dollars to the enslavers for having lost their unnatural resource and the profits from where it once came. I was really bowled over. Then I remembered that in the not so distant past. The then President Aristides of Hailu lodged a formal request for reparations from France 3 months later he was displaced and removed from office. I find both examples are windows into the truth of just how deep racism is worldwide and how still hidden and is acceptable by large and wealthy countries

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