Sunday, April 13, 2008

Oberlin-Wellington Rescue
The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue was a key event and cause celebre in the history of the Abolitionist movement in the United States, just before the American Civil War.
On September 13, 1858, a runaway slave named John Price was arrested by a United States marshal in Oberlin, Ohio. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the federal government was required to assist slaveholders in reclaiming their runaway slaves. The marshal knew that many Oberlin residents were committed to abolitionism. To avoid conflict with locals and to quickly get the slave to Columbus and en route to the slave's owner in Kentucky, he immediately took Price to nearby Wellington, Ohio. As soon as Oberlin residents heard of the marshal's actions, a group of them immediately rushed to Wellington. There, they joined like-minded residents of the Wellington community and attempted to free Price. The marshal and his deputies took refuge in a local hotel. After peaceful negotiations failed, the mob stormed the hotel and found Price in the attic. The group immediately returned Price to Oberlin, where they hid him in the home of Oberlin College's future president, James Harris Fairchild. A short time later, they took Price to Canada (Oberlin had long been an important stop on the Underground Railroad). There, Price did not have to worry about U.S. authorities or slaveholders trying to return him to slavery.
A federal grand jury handed up indictments against 37 of those who freed Price. Only two of the people indicted, Simeon Bushnell and Charles Langston, went to trial. Four prominent local attorneys -- Franklin Thomas Backus, Rufus Spalding, Albert G. Riddle, and Seneca O. Griswold -- acted for the defense. Bushnell and Langston were convicted in federal court in April 1859. Bushnell received a sentence of 60 days in jail, Langston 20. The remaining 35 people in jail were released in July 1859. Feelings ran high in Ohio in the aftermath of Price's release, and state authorities arrested the federal marshal, his deputies, and other men involved in John Price's detention. After negotiations, it was agreed that all of these men would be released and not charged with a crime, if the remaining 35 prisoners were immediately released.
Bushnell and Langston filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Ohio Supreme Court, claiming that the federal court did not have the authority to arrest and try them because the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law by a three-to-two ruling. Although Chief Justice Joseph Swan was personally opposed to slavery, he wrote that his judicial duty left him no choice but to acknowledge that an Act of the United States Congress was the supreme law of the land (see Supremacy Clause), and to uphold it. Members of Ohio's abolitionist community were incensed. More than ten thousand people participated in a Cleveland rally to oppose the federal and state courts' decisions. Because of his decision, Chief Justice Swan failed to win reelection, and his political career was ruined.
In time, regional tensions over slavery, constitutional interpretation and other factors would lead to the outbreak of the Civil War. The incident is considered as important as it not only received national attention along the lines of incidents like John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, but occurred in a volatile county and region of Ohio known for its activity with the Underground Railroad.