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Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law: Northern States’ Rights, Part 2

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

It was May 27, 1857, four years before the start of the American Civil War.  On this day an armed confrontation over the issue of states’ rights would occur between forces of the United States federal government and local law enforcement officers at South Charleston.  But this wasn’t South Charleston, South Carolina, it was South Charleston, Ohio, about midway between Columbus and Dayton.  The confrontation, which involved the exchange of gunfire and the serious injury of a county sheriff, would be called the “Battle of Lumbarton”, or the “Greene County Rescue”.  A United States District Judge would blame the fighting on a “strange and anomalous” law passed a year earlier by the Ohio General Assembly.  That law was written by Oberlin College Professor James Monroe, a freshman state legislator, with the support of Governor Salmon P. Chase.  It was a “personal liberty law”, designed to counteract the effects of the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Law (see my Kidnapped into Slavery blog post).  But its critics would call it “shocking in its hideousness, loathsome in its practices, and dangerous in its designs.”  This blog will examine that law and the battle that ensued. [1]

On its surface, there was nothing about this law that would suggest the “hidden treachery” its critics accused it of.  Certainly nothing about its name would evoke anything but a deep yawn:  “An act further to amend and supplementary to an act entitled an act securing the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus.”  Nor was its author, Professor Monroe, the kind of fire-eating hot-head who you might expect would write a “statute of sedition and discord.” [2]

In fact this law, as its tortuous name suggests, was an amendment to an existing state law – the 1811 “act securing the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus.”  The writ of habeas corpus is an ancient and revered legal custom that allows a judge to order a prisoner who is being detained to be brought before him so that the judge can determine if the detention is lawful.  If the judge decides it isn’t, the prisoner is released.  The writ of habeas corpus became a flashpoint in the late 1850s when northern states began to resist the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and question the legality of the detentions of accused fugitive slaves held in custody by the federal government. [3]

In one particularly high-profile Ohio case, the 1856 Margaret Garner tragedy (see my Lucy Stone and the Margaret Garner tragedy blog post), a local judge issued a writ of habeas corpus to bring before him the Garner family, who were being held as alleged fugitive slaves, but they were returned to slavery instead.  This infuriated Ohio’s abolitionist Governor, Salmon P. Chase, who found himself powerless to do anything about it.  So Chase asked James Monroe to draft an amendment to the 1811 law that would give him the power to forcefully execute the writ of habeas corpus if the need were ever to arise again in the future.  The result was the law described above, which is commonly known as the 1856 Habeas Corpus Act, or Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law. [4]

In the late 1850s, when Monroe was defending his law against critics who called it “a disgrace to our State” and demanded its repeal, he tried to downplay its radical nature, saying: “The late law amends and repeals only one section of the original act, and the amendment in this case is an unimportant one.”[5]   But thirty years later he was singing a different tune.  Here’s how he described his law to an Oberlin audience at that time:

The effective provision of the new bill was that whenever any judge or a State court who is about to issue the writ of Habeas Corpus for the relief of any person alleged to be unlawfully deprived of liberty by an officer, shall become convinced, by affidavit or otherwise, that such officer will not obey the writ, he shall direct it to the sheriff of the county, who shall proceed with the “power of the county” that is, all the able-bodied citizens of the vicinage, and take the person detained out of the custody of the officer detaining him, and bring him before the judge issuing the writ…
 
It is easy to see that any county like Lorain, where the anti-slavery sentiment was strong, would furnish a pretty lively company to be the sheriff’s posse.  Neither slavery, nor the Fugitive Slave Law, nor even the United States Courts were named in the bill, but it was nevertheless a vigorous procedure.  The bill had not much growl or bark in it, but it had plenty of teeth. [6]

Aha!  So it wasn’t “unimportant” after all.  It was a “vigorous procedure” with “plenty of teeth”.  When you consider that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law effectively made the federal government slavecatcher-in-chief, and that it prohibited federal officers who were holding alleged fugitive slaves from letting them go free, it can be seen that this law could indeed lead to armed conflict between the federal government and a “sheriff’s posse” made up of “all the able-bodied citizens” of an anti-slavery community.  In fact, it could be called a state-sponsored rescue!

So let’s look at how it played out in the Battle of Lumbarton.  The action began on May 27, 1857 in Mechanicsburg, Ohio, when a U.S. Deputy Marshal and his posse arrested four citizens for violating  the Fugitive Slave Law by allegedly helping a fugitive slave to escape.  The Marshal and his posse then headed out cross-country with their prisoners towards Cincinnati.

Word spread rapidly of the arrest, and a county judge issued a writ of habeas corpus ordering the county sheriff to bring the prisoners before him, so he could determine if the arrest was lawful.  The Clark County Sheriff, John Layton, gathered a posse and went after the Marshal and his prisoners.  They caught up with them near South Charleston.  Gunshots were fired, but apparently nobody was hit.  Sheriff Layton, however, was severely beaten during the altercation by the U.S. Marshal and his posse.  The Marshal then continued on his way, with his prisoners, while the seriously injured Sheriff was attended to by his comrades.

Word spread once again, and a larger posse was gathered to pursue the Marshal as he and his entourage crossed into Greene County.  This posse was led by Sheriff Lewis, who caught up with his quarry near Lumbarton (a.k.a. Lumberton).  This time the U.S. Marshal surrendered without injury.  Sheriff Lewis took the Marshal and his posse to Springfield and jailed them there for the assault on Sheriff Layton.  The Marshal’s prisoners (the four Mechanicsburg men who had been arrested for helping a freedom seeker escape from slavery) were taken before a Judge in Urbana, who released them.

The case of the U.S. Marshal and his posse, held in jail in Springfield, now came to a hearing before a United States District Judge, Humphrey Leavitt.  Arguing in favor of the Marshal was attorney and politician Clement Vallandigham, a Democrat.  Arguing against the Marshal was Ohio Attorney General Christopher Wolcott, a Republican.

Leavitt & Vallandigham

But the case quickly evolved into something much bigger in scope as Vallandigham launched into an excoriating attack on James Monroe’s 1856 Habeas Corpus Act, which he claimed was responsible for the violence:

The heat of the times demanded something of a higher mettle; and the act of 1856 is produced from the same loins, and engendered in the same spirit, but an offspring of far lustier and more vigorous birth.  This act requires the writ [of habeas corpus] in certain cases to be addressed to the Sheriff or Coroner, even where the party is in custody of an officer by virtue of judicial process.  It is therefore a hybrid – a monstrosity in legislation and jurisprudence… It is not a habeas corpus, because it is not addressed to the party who detains the prisoner… But it is called a habeas corpus, because that is a holy name and embalmed in the hearts of the people.  It has a wicked and treasonable purpose to subserve, and it must assume a sacred name and garb… But the motives and the results expected from it cannot be thus concealed; and, in a court of law, it must be stripped of its disguises, and set forth in its true character – a statute of sedition and discord. [7]

Judge Leavitt basically agreed with Vallandigham and ordered the release of the U.S. Marshal and his posse.  He also denounced Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law as being the cause of the violence:

To understand the nature of this conflict, it should be remembered that the deputy marshals, by their official oaths, were under a positive and paramount obligation to retain their prisoners, and to oppose all attempts to rescue them… The sheriff had a writ which commanded him to take the prisoners from the custody of these officers of the United States.  It was not the usual and well-known writ of habeas corpus, … but a writ requiring them to be taken, forcibly, if necessary, from those having the prior and lawful custody…  So the sheriff understood it; and hence he and his assistants deliberately armed themselves, as a preparation for the conflict which they foresaw was inevitable…
 
… the writ under the extraordinary Ohio law of 1856, requiring the officer to whom it is directed to take the prisoners, no matter by whom or by what authority they are detained, is a wholly different thing.  This act seems to have been inconsiderately passed, and in its practical execution must lead to frequent conflicts between the national and state authorities.  It might, with great propriety, be designated as an act to prevent the execution of laws of the United States within the state of Ohio. [8]

It bears mentioning that Judge Leavitt acknowledged that “it cannot be assumed as a fact” that the judge who issued the writ of habeas corpus knew that the prisoners were in the custody of a U.S. Marshal, leading James Monroe to argue that it could not be “assumed as a fact” that the Sheriff was operating under the 1856 Habeas Corpus Act.  Governor Chase also voiced dissatisfaction with Judge Leavitt’s ruling, saying that it “denied the right of the State to execute its own criminal process or civil process, where the execution interfered with the claims of masters under the fugitive slave law.”  However Chase did eventually meet with President James Buchanan, a pro-Southern Democrat, and negotiate a compromise whereby the federal government and the state of Ohio would drop all charges against all participants.  (Although Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law was actually intended to free alleged fugitive slaves, in this case it freed four people who were accused of assisting fugitive slaves.) [9]

Judge Leavitt’s attack of the 1856 Habeas Corpus Act would play a role in the state elections of 1857, as James Monroe noted that “it was freely scattered about upon our desks, like other electioneering documents.”  The Democrats would regain control of both houses of the General Assembly, and among their first orders of business when they took office in early 1858 was to attempt to repeal Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law.  Professor Monroe wrote an eloquent (and sometimes witty) speech in defense of his law, but the Democrats brought it to a vote without discussion, so the speech was never delivered.  But I thought it might be nice, a century and a half later, to post some excerpts from that undelivered speech.  In addition to downplaying the radicality of the law (as has already been quoted), he intended to say the following: [10]

I see nothing in the character of the Fugitive Slave Act or its officers, which should make unlawful imprisonment or restraint less probable under that act than under others.  There is no reason, so far as I can discover, why the business of slave-catching should make one engaged in it so much more intelligent and so much more tender of the liberty of his fellow men than others would be, as to exempt him from all danger of acting without proper authority.  I think a slave-catcher, even though fortified with the virtuous consciousness of being a Buchanan Democrat, would still be subject to human infirmity… Partial and oppressive laws are very apt to be executed in an illegal and oppressive manner.  A law breathes its own spirit into all the proceedings under it…
 
The provisions of a Habeas Corpus Act will be sufficiently stringent in every country where the people are not slaves, to secure obedience to the Writ, and they will be made especially vigorous in times when some great usurpation is stalking through the land, and crushing personal liberty under its elephantine tread…
 
If I understand this decision, it virtually robs us of the Writ of Habeas Corpus altogether.  If a man is only a United States officer he may seize whomsoever he pleases without any legal authority whatever, and all the Writs which our State courts can issue will be of no avail for the protection of the injured party because he is in the custody of a United States officer…
 
But I shall be told that Judge Leavitt is against the law of 1856. This I admit without hesitation, and I hope without alarm. I shall endeavor to console myself for the want of such an ally by the high authorities I have quoted, and the arguments I have employed…
 
If there is danger of conflict between the State of Ohio and the Federal Government, it is because that Government is not willing to be confined within its constitutional limits – because in its zeal for the interests of its Southern masters, it is willing to put in peril the liberty of the people.  This course, if persisted in, undoubtedly will produce a “conflict.”  Tyrants have always had occasion to complain that the people would not submit to be enslaved quietly…
 
We have been frequently told… that the act of 1856 is an act of nullification, and that its friends are nullifiers – enemies of the Constitution and the Union…  They have spoken as if they had a sort of monopoly of the American eagle – as if they were on terms of particular confidence with that bird, and we were men of too unclean lips to invoke her name…  Sir, no man shall outdo me in attachment to the American eagle.  The truly national eagle – the eagle of Washington, and Jefferson, and Franklin, is a bird that I admire… But the eagle of the Buchanan Democracy is a bird of a very different species and of very different tastes… a bird of Stygian form and hue, with blood shot eye and discordant scream and hideous and unshapely proportions, burying her sharpened beak and talons in the bleeding back of a fleeing, ghastly, famished negro, and beating her dusky wings upon his shrunken sides.  To such an eagle I freely acknlowledge I profess no allegiance.  She shall never spread her wings upon the banner under which I march.  I avow myself a traitor to such a symbol of authority; and to all the consequences of such an avowal, I will cheerfully submit. – James Monroe

(In the next and final blog of this series, we’ll see the fate of this law and Ohio’s three other personal liberty laws, and the dramatic impact these laws had on Oberlin.)

 
SOURCES CONSULTED:

James Monroe, Speech of Mr. Monroe of Lorain, upon the Bill to Repeal the Habeas Corpus Act of 1856

“Ex parte Sifford” [5 Am. Law Reg. 659]

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday Lectures, Addresses, and Essays

Clement L. Vallandigham, SPEECHES, ARGUMENTS, ADDRESSES, AND LETTERS OF CLEMENT L. VALLANDIGHAM

“An act further to amend and supplementary to an act entitled an act securing the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus”, Acts of the State of Ohio, Volume 53, p. 61

“John E. Layton and the Greene County Rescue Case of 1857”, Springfield, Ohio Community Website – History of Clark County

 “Battle of Lumbarton”, Ohio History Central

“Clark County Sheriff was felled by federal marshals”, Springfield News-Sun, June 2, 2013

Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North 1780-1861

Jacob William Shuckers, The Life and Public Service of Salmon Portland Chase

Catherine M. Rockicky,  James Monroe: Oberlin’s Christian Statesman & Reformer, 1821-1898

 
FOOTNOTES:

[1] “John E. Layton”; “Ex parte Sifford”; Monroe, Speech, p. 4
[2] Monroe, Speech, p. 4; “An act”; Vallandigham, p. 145
[3] Morris, pp. 168-180
[4] Shuckers, pp. 172-174; Monroe, Thursday, p. 115
[5] Monroe, Speech, pp. 4, 10
[6] Monroe, Thursday, pp. 119-120
[7] Vallandigham, pp. 144-145
[8] “Ex parte Sifford”
[9] Monroe, Speech, p. 13; Shuckers, p. 182
[10] Monroe, Speech, pp. 5, 8-9, 12, 13, 14

Kidnapped into Slavery: Northern States’ Rights, Part 1

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

The movie 12 Years a Slave, now showing in northeast Ohio, graphically depicts several deplorable aspects of American slavery, including the fact that freeborn African Americans could be kidnapped and carried into a life of bondage.  The true-life story of Solomon Northup, portrayed in the movie, was the result of an illegal kidnapping in Washington, D.C.  But to make the story even sadder, in 1850, just nine years after Northup’s illegal abduction, the laws of the United States were modified, not to make it harder for such atrocities to occur, but in such a way as to make it easier – to in fact make such abductions possible with the full sanction of U.S. law and with the support of federal law officers and American citizens deputized to assist them, whether willingly or not.  This blog will discuss how such a law could come to be, and how some northern legislators, like Oberlin’s James Monroe, eventually fought back, to defend the rights of their states to protect their citizens from the tragic fate of Solomon Northup.

James Monroe

James Monroe (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

The law I’m alluding to is the infamous Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, passed at a time when this country was on the verge of splintering in two and disintegrating into civil war.   The northern states (north of the Mason-Dixon line/Ohio River) had for the most part abolished slavery by then, to the point that only about 1% of their black population remained enslaved (in Delaware and New Jersey).  In the southern states, however, slavery was flourishing, so that more than 93% of their black population was enslaved.[1]  This led to tremendous tensions between the sections, as described by South Carolina’s “states’ rights” Senator, John C. Calhoun, in his last speech to Congress in early 1850:

There is a question of vital importance to the Southern section, in reference to which the views and feelings of the two sections are as opposite and hostile as they can possibly be. I refer to the relation between the two races in the Southern section, which constitutes a vital portion of her social organization. Every portion of the North entertains views and feelings more or less hostile to it… On the contrary, the Southern section regards the relation as one which can not be destroyed without subjecting the two races to the greatest calamity, and the section to poverty, desolation, and wretchedness; and accordingly they feel bound by every consideration of interest and safety to defend it.
 
Unless something decisive is done, I again ask, What is to stop this agitation before the great and final object at which it aims–the abolition of slavery in the States–is consummated? Is it, then, not certain that if something is not done to arrest it, the South will be forced to choose between abolition and secession? [2]

The “agitation” to which he refers includes several anti-slavery policies and practices of the northern states and their citizens, but one of the most irritating to southern slaveholders was what Calhoun called the failure of the North “to do her duty by causing the stipulations relative to fugitive slaves to be faithfully fulfilled.”  In other words, the North was not cooperating, and even downright obstructing, the return of enslaved persons who had escaped from their owners in the South to seek freedom in the North.  This, the slaveholders felt, was in violation of the fugitive slave clause of the U.S. Constitution:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due. – Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3

Many Northerners felt differently, however – that the vagueness of this clause left them latitude to insure, at the minimum, that freeborn Americans like Solomon Northup would not be carried off into slavery.  Without going into the long, complicated series of litigation and legislation that this clause precipitated in the decades prior to 1850, I’ll just suffice it to say that by 1850 the situation was as confused and turbulent as ever.

And so it was that a group of U.S. Congressmen crafted the “Compromise of 1850”, the latest in a long series of compromises designed to attempt to preserve a democratic Union by supporting and maintaining institutionalized slavery.  One of the key pieces of this compromise was a new fugitive slave law, to enforce the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution.   But this law was so tilted in favor of the slaveholders that the New York Evening Post called it “An Act for the Encouragement of Kidnapping.” [3]

The Fugitive Slave Law brought the Southern viewpoint, that a black person was assumed a slave until proven otherwise, into the northern states, where all people, white and black, were assumed free until proven otherwise.  It required neither the alleged fugitive slave nor the alleged slaveowner to appear in person to testify.  In fact, the alleged fugitive was prohibited from testifying in his/her defense altogether, while the alleged slaveowner need only file an affidavit claiming ownership and providing a physical description of the alleged fugitive.  It established a set of federal Commissioners to “exercise and discharge” the provisions of the act.  It also charged United States Marshals and Deputies with enforcement of the act.  Where the Marshals had insufficient numbers to perform their duties, they were authorized to “summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus  of the proper county.”  And if any of the Marshals, Deputies, or bystanders refused or failed in their duties, they were subject to stiff penalties themselves, as anyone assisting an alleged fugitive would be as well.  The act also provided for monetary remuneration of the Commissioners for each case they heard, to be doubled if they decided in favor of the alleged slaveowner.[4]

No wonder the Oberlin Evangelist lamented, “Everything is yielded to the slave power which can be asked…  O this horrible legislation for iniquity, and against freedom and righteousness!” And yet it passed both houses of the United States Congress, and was signed into law in September, 1850 by President Millard Fillmore.  It was overwhelmingly opposed in Ohio, where abolitionist Senator Salmon P. Chase voted against it (his colleague, Senator Ewing not voting), and 14 Representatives voted against it while only 3 voted in its favor. But it had virtually unanimous Southern support, and enough northern Congressmen either voted for it or abstained from voting altogether, to dress this “hideous deformity”, as Oberlin’s John Mercer Langston called it, “in the garb of law.”[5]

Even the Cleveland Plain Dealer, noted for its vehement anti-abolitionist opinions, complained that the law was not “confined to the slave States,” but was enforced “wholly in the free States… by free men.  The service it requires is not the kind we owe to either God, man, or the devil.” [6]  Lewis Tappan, the abolitionist New York merchant and key benefactor of Oberlin College, minced no words:

It constitutes at the North, in our neighborhoods, and by our firesides, the most anomalous, overshadowing, insulting, and despotic police that perverted mind can contrive, or guilty power sustain—a police which guilty power cannot sustain, until honor, and purity, and freedom have fled from among us, and we have consented to be the most drivelling, and base, and worthless slaves that ever crawled at the foot of tyranny. [7]

But it was now the law of the land and President Fillmore ominously pronounced the Compromise of 1850 a “final settlement.”  The nation now watched and waited to see if the “finality” would hold.  But as it turns out, it didn’t even take four months for a freeborn black man to be “returned” to slavery under this law.  On December 21, 1850, a United States Commissioner in Philadelphia ordered that Adam Gibson be sent to his alleged owner in Maryland, based on the testimony of a witness who was currently under indictment for kidnapping.  Fortunately for Gibson, his alleged owner was honest enough to admit the error and return him to Pennsylvania, otherwise Gibson would have suffered the same horrible fate as Solomon Northup.  One can only wonder how many Adam Gibsons weren’t so lucky. [8]

Over the next few years scores of blacks were arrested under this law, with the vast majority being remanded to slavery.  But other than a handful of rescues, Notherners were powerless to do anything about it.  In 1853, Solomon Northup was finally released from his 12 year ordeal and published his narrative, further dismaying the northern public.  Northern indignation grew with each rendition and reached a crescendo in 1854, when President Franklin Pierce sent hundreds of U.S. troops to Massachusetts to return Anthony Burns to slavery, marching him through the Boston streets as crowds watched helplessly and church bells tolled in lament. [9]

Still, only one northern state, Vermont, had been able to pass legislation to dilute the effects of the Fugitive Slave Law, but it was too far away from ‘ground zero’ to make an impact.  But another momentous event occurred at the same time as the Burns debacle that would change everything.  The United States Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing slavery into Kansas and Nebraska, which at that time were United States territories.  Many Northerners felt this was a flagrant violation of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in the territories that far north.  Having simmered with indignation while they upheld the Compromise of 1850, Northerners now boiled over into action.  The anti-slavery Republican Party was formed, and state legislatures began to pass “personal liberty laws” to counteract the Fugitive Slave Law. [10]

Ohio had its first opportunity to test the waters of this new political climate in the election of 1855, and the result was a stunning victory for the infant Republican Party.  Republicans took control of both houses of the Ohio General Assembly, and Republican abolitionist Salmon P. Chase was elected Governor.  One of the new freshmen Republican members of the Ohio House of Representatives was another abolitionist, Oberlin College Professor James Monroe.

Salmon Chase

Salmon P. Chase

When the Republicans took office in January, 1856, Monroe, despite being a political rookie, immediately began feeling out his Republican colleagues on the idea of passing personal liberty laws in Ohio.   As he wrote in his personal notes, “If Ohio would be a free state with free citizens & maintain the great safeguards of liberty, she must make a stand.”  He quickly discerned, however, that “about one half of the Republicans were very conservative” and “had nothing that could be called anti-slavery principle as that term was understood in Oberlin.” [11]

Then another momentous event occurred, this time in southern Ohio, that changed everything once again.  Just three weeks after the Republicans took office, news broke of the tragic Margaret Garner affair (see my Lucy Stone and the Margaret Garner tragedy blog for details).  Ohioans were horrified at the story of the freedom seeker who had killed one of her children in Cincinnati rather than letting slavecatchers take her.  Years later, Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President, who had been an abolitionist lawyer in Cincinnati at the time, told Monroe of the reaction in Cincinnati:

[Hayes] lived in a street of Southern sympathizers; but, as he expressed it, the whole street was converted by the tragedy of Margaret Garner.  The next day after it occurred, a leader among his pro-slavery neighbors called at his house, and as he met Mr. Hayes, exclaimed with great fervor, “Mr. Hayes, hereafter I am with you.  From this time forward, I will not only be a Black Republican, but I will be a damned abolitionist.” [12]

Governor Chase and other state and local anti-slavery officials had tried every trick in the book to get Garner and the rest of her family out of federal custody, but they could not get past the Fugitive Slave Law, and the whole family was eventually returned to slavery.  The Governor was incensed at the impotence imposed upon him, and he vented his frustration to Monroe:

… there was a knock at my door, and Governor Chase entered.  He was laboring under great excitement of some kind, and appeared to be angry.  He broke out abruptly, “What are you Republicans doing in the House, and what are you doing, Monroe, when a mother who is a free woman is compelled to kill her children on the soil of Ohio to save them from slavery, and that because there is no efficient law for her protection?… You ought to introduce a bill into the House in the morning, have it carried through both Houses under a suspension of the rules, and have it become a law before you adjourn to-morrow.” [13]

Though it didn’t happen quite that fast, Monroe, with Chase’s support, in the wake of the outrage over the Garner case, wrote and passed a law that would arguably become one of the most radical personal liberty laws in the country.  The law went into effect on April 5, 1856.  It was a law that Monroe would say years later “had not much growl or bark in it, but it had plenty of teeth.”  Its critics would call it “insane and aggressive legislation” (and that’s when they were being nice.)  I’ll discuss this very intriguing law in detail in my next blog post. [14]

It would be a full year after passage of Monroe’s law before the Ohio legislature would pass any further personal liberty laws, and when they did they would be among the most conservative of such laws.  In the Spring of 1857, they  passed “An act to prohibit the confinement of fugitives from slavery in the jails of Ohio”, and “An act to prevent slaveholding and kidnapping in Ohio”, and “An act to prevent kidnapping”.  The latter law would turn out to be the most noteworthy of the three.  Here’s an excerpt:

… no person or persons shall kidnap or forcibly or fraudulently carry off or decoy out of this state any black or mulatto person or persons within this state, claimed as fugitives from service or labor, or shall attempt to [do so],  without first taking such black or mulatto person or persons before the court, judge or commissioner of the proper circuit, district or county…
 
… any person or persons offending against the provisions of this act shall be… confined in the penitentiary at hard labor for any space of time not less than three years nor more than eight years…
[15]

Three to eight years hard labor in the notorious Ohio State Penitentiary.  That sounds pretty severe in our day and age.  But it pales by comparison to Solomon Northup’s twelve years of brutality and “unrequited toil”, or the life sentences that hundreds of victims of the Fugitive Slave Law endured.  Nevertheless, the new laws made an impact, as we shall soon see.  Stay tuned.

 
SOURCES CONSULTED:

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday lectures, addresses and essays

Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North 1780-1861

William Cox Cochran, The Western Reserve and the Fugitive Slave Law

Lewis Tappan, The Fugitive Slave Bill: Its History and Unconstitutionality

John C. Calhoun, “The Clay Compromise Measures”, National Center for Public Policy Research

Samuel May, The Fugitive Slave Law and its Victims

“Doings of Congress”, Oberlin Evangelist, September 25, 1850

Carol Wilson, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861

James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom

“Fugitive Slave Act, 1850”, National Center for Public Policy Research

Joseph Rockwell Swan,  The Revised Statutes of the State of Ohio, of a General Nature, in Force August 1, 1860

“Historical Census Browser, 1850”, University of Virgina Library

“Amendment of the Habeas Corpus Act”, Oberlin College Archives, RG30/22, “James Monroe”, Box 19

Clement L. Vallandigham, SPEECHES, ARGUMENTS, ADDRESSES, AND LETTERS OF CLEMENT L. VALLANDIGHAM

President Millard Fillmore, “First Annual Message, December 2, 1850”, The Miller Center

Philip S. Foner, “History of Black Americans From the Compromise of 1850 to the End of the Civil War”

Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave

 
FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Historical Census Browser”
[2] Calhoun
[3] May, p. 3
[4] “Fugitive Slave Act”
[5]  “Doings of  Congress”, p. 6;  Tappan, pp. 12-16; Foner
[6] Cochran, pp. 103-104
[7] Tappan, p. 29
[8] Fillmore;  May, p. 12; Wilson, pp. 52-53
[9] Potter, p. 138;  McPherson, pp. 119-120
[10] Morris, pp. 159, 168
[11] “Amendment”, p.2; Monroe, p. 111
[12] Monroe, p. 116
[13] ibid., p. 117
[14] ibid., p. 120, Vallandigham, p. 154
[15] Swan, p. 418

Lucy Stone and the Margaret Garner tragedy

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

The winter of 1856 was a particularly harsh one – harsh enough that the Ohio River froze solid in January, something that only happened every few years.  When it did happen, enslaved Americans on the Kentucky side of the river would take the opportunity to make their break for freedom across the solid ice.  January 1856 saw two freedom seekers cross the frozen Ohio who would eventually make national headlines.  They were unknown to each other, and crossed at different places with different groups, but both would have an Oberlin connection.  One of their stories would have a happy ending; the other would be one of the most tragic stories of American slavery.

The story with the happy ending belonged to John Price, of Oberlin-Wellington Rescue fame, who crossed the Ohio River on horseback at Maysville, Kentucky.  But this blog post is about the tragic story, belonging to Margaret Garner, who crossed fifty miles downriver at Cincinnati.  The Oberlin connection in her story is through Oberlin College graduate Lucy Stone.  However, Stone’s role was sadly not as a rescuer, but instead as a consoler, as two women from vastly different backgrounds came face-to-face in a grim chapter of American history.

Lucy Stone
Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone had come to Oberlin from Massachusetts in 1843 and enrolled in the general program at Oberlin College, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree.  She was 24 years old and already an avid follower of William Lloyd Garrison and his radical abolitionist/feminist/pacifist “no government” views.  She was immediately impressed with Oberlin, writing “The teachers are pleasant, and the young ladies too.  Colored gentlemen and ladies eat at the same table with us, and there appears to be no difference.”

As progressive as Oberlin was, in one area it was still quite conservative, much to Stone’s frustration.  The general nationwide tabboo against women speaking in public was quite evident at Oberlin, prompting her to say, “I hoped when I came to Oberlin that the course of study would permit such practice, but I was never in a place where women are so rigidly taught that they must not speak in public.”  But Stone was a natural orator, with tremendous charisma, persuasiveness and logical power, and “the voice of an angel” that could yet project enough to be heard by thousands.  And she would not be silenced.  She helped resurrect the Young Ladies’ Assocation on campus and led many spirited debates there.  She also engaged in ad hoc speeches and debates whenever she could, sometimes enduring the disapproval of much (but not all) of the faculty, and greatly honing her already exceptional oratory skills.  In one debate with an older male student, her opponent later confessed that she “swept [my arguments] away like chaff before the wind.”

When she wasn’t debating or studying, she earned spare money by teaching classes to fugitive slaves and freedmen.  Initially there was some discontent among the male students at having a female teacher, but Stone quickly overcame the objections and became quite popular with the students.  Not only did she teach them, but she learned from them as well, listening empathetically to their stories of life in slavery.  She wrote, “When I saw how they were dehumanized… I wondered, that in the wide universe of god, one tongue could be found, that failed to utter its indignant rebuke against all that pertains to so execrable a system.”

She also wrote numerous articles and became the Oberlin correspondent for the Anti-Slavery Bugle, a radical anti-slavery newspaper published in Lisbon, Ohio.  Her articles were sometimes critical of Oberlin for being too conservative (as ironic as that may sound), preferring the much more radical brand of abolitionism espoused by Garrison and his Boston followers (see my William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass debate in Oberlin blog post for more information.)  Her career at Oberlin was thus a love-hate relationship, culminating in her 1847 graduation with a Bachelor’s degree.

After graduating she returned to Massachusetts and became a paid lecturer for the New England Anti-Slavery Society.  Her lectures were exceedingly popular, albeit controversial because of both the abolitionist topic and the gender of the speaker.  She found herself speaking more and more on behalf of women’s rights, sponsoring her own lectures and drawing large crowds of paying guests.  Her lectures took her all over the country, including even some Southern states, and to Canada as well.  Then, in 1855, she married a Cincinnati businessman named Henry Blackwell, in a ceremony in which the couple issued a protest against the traditional subservient role of the wife.  By mutual agreement, Stone kept her own surname – the first woman in the country to do so.

Then, just nine months after the wedding, the shocking news of the Margaret Garner story broke nationwide.  Stone was on a speaking tour in the Northeast when Margaret Garner crossed the frozen Ohio River on foot with a party of 16 other freedom seekers.  Margaret Garner was just 22 years old, but already was married and had four children and was pregnant with a fifth.  When her party reached the Ohio shore they split up into smaller groups and went in different directions.  Margaret’s group of eight included her husband and children.  They made their way to the residence of a freed slave who they knew by the name of Elijah Kite.

Kite, being concerned about the safety of his guests, went to consult with Cincinnati’s foremost Underground Railroad conductor, Levi Coffin.  Coffin advised that the Garner party be moved “at once” to an African American settlement on the western side of the city where freedom seekers often took refuge.  Kite returned to his home to get the Garners, while Coffin made arrangements for their transportation northward that night.

But while all this was going on, Garner’s owner, Archibald Gaines, had crossed the Ohio River and gathered a posse of slavecatchers in pursuit.  They interviewed people who had seen the Garner party on the road and were able to track them to Kite’s residence.  Kite had not had time to remove the Garner’s before his dwelling was surrounded by the slavecatchers, who demanded that they surrender.  Levi Coffin described what happened next:

“The fugitives were determined to fight, and to die, rather than to be taken back to slavery.  Margaret, the mother of the four children, declared that she would kill herself and her children before she would return to bondage.  The slave men were armed and fought bravely.  The window was first battered down with a stick of wood, and one of the deputy marshals attempted to enter, but a pistol shot from within made a flesh wound on his arm and caused him to abandon the attempt.  The pursuers then battered down the door with some timber and rushed in.  The husband of Margaret fired several shots, and wounded one of the officers, but was soon overpowered and dragged out of the house.  At this moment, Maragert Garner, seeing that their hopes of freedom were vain, seized a butcher knife that lay on the table, and with one stroke cut the throat of her little daughter, whom she probably loved the best.  She then attempted to take the life of the other children and to kill herself, but she was overpowered and hampered before she could complete her desperate work.  The whole party was then arrested and lodged in jail.”

Garner painting
Artist’s (incorrect) depiction of the Margaret Garner tragedy

The party remained in jail for almost a month while the legal wrangling continued.  They had numerous visitors, but according to Coffin, “those who came to speak words of comfort and cheer felt them die upon their lips, when they looked into [Margaret’s] face, and marked its expression of settled despair.  Her sorrow was beyond reach of any words of encouragement and consolation, and can be realized in all its fullness only by those who have tasted of a cup equally bitter.”  Visitors noticed two old scars on Margaret’s face, but when asked about them she would only reply, “white man struck me.”  Others noticed the light complexion of her children and speculated that it was evidence of sexual abuse at the hands of her owner.

One of the visitors who tried to console Margaret was Lucy Stone, who returned to her new home in Cincinnati after completing her speaking tour.  While Stone met with Margaret, a rumor started that Stone had attempted to procure a knife for Margaret so she could finish the job if the trial went against her.  The slaveholder’s attorney, Colonel Chambers, openly accused Stone of this in court.  When Stone heard about the accusation, she asked to be allowed to address the court after it adjourned for the day.  At that time, speaking with her natural eloquence, Lucy Stone Blackwell (as the court called her) made the following statement to a packed courtroom:

“I am only sorry that I was not in when Colonel Chambers said what he did about me, and my giving a knife to Margaret. When I saw that poor fugitive, took her toil-hardened hand in mine, and read in her face deep suffering and an ardent longing for freedom, I could not help bid her be of good cheer. I told her that a thousand hearts were aching for her, and that they were glad one child of hers was safe with the angels. Her only reply was a look of deep despair, of anguish such as no words can speak.

I thought the spirit she manifested was the same with that of our ancestors to whom we had erected the monument at Bunker Hill–the spirit that would rather let us all go back to God than back to slavery. The faded faces of the negro children tell too plainly to what degradation female slaves must submit. Rather than give her little daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right to do so? That desire had its root in the deepest and holiest feelings of our nature–implanted alike in black and white by our common Father. With my own teeth I would tear open my veins and let the earth drink my blood, rather than to wear the chains of slavery. How then could I blame her for wishing her child to find freedom with God and the angels, where no chains are?

I know not whether this Commissioner has children, else I would appeal to him to know how he would feel to have them torn from him, but I feel that he will not disregard the Book which says: ‘Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best.'”

Listening to Stone speak was a reporter from the women’s rights newpaper, The Lily, who was enthralled with “the fascinating power of her voice, so irresistibly sweet and powerful.  Its melody has lingered around my heart ever since I first heard its tones, like a magic spell, and I only wish that it might reach the ear of the nation – when I am sure its stubborn heart would relent.”

But the stubborn heart of the nation did not relent.  The Fugitive Slave Law reigned supreme.  The Garners had top-notch legal counsel in the person of the abolitionist attorney,  John Jolliffe, and support from the newly inaugurated abolitionist Governor of Ohio, Salmon Chase.  But it wouldn’t be enough.  Jolliffe argued that the Garners had, in prior years, been brought into Ohio by their owner on business, and that under Ohio law that made them free, even though they had not realized it at the time.  The court agreed that they would have been free at that time, if only they had claimed their freedom.  But since they “voluntarily” returned to Kentucky and slavery with their owner, they had surrendered that freedom.   And now, being in Ohio as fugitives without their owner’s consent, they were subject to be returned to his custody.

Then Jolliffe tried an extremely unusual maneuver.  He asked the county prosecutor to indict his own clients for the murder of Margaret’s two year old daughter, believing that a conviction would bring them out of federal custody and into state custody where Governor Chase could pardon them.  But the court would have no part of it.  The Fugitive Slave Law superseded even Ohio’s murder laws.  To the “outrage” of Governor Chase, a U.S. district judge ordered the Garners released to the slavecatchers, and “hardly an hour elapsed… before the fugitives were lodged in a Kentucky jail.”  Governor Chase issued a warrant of extradition, but the slavecatchers eluded his agents, and the Garners were sold “downriver” to what attorney Jolliffe called “the seething hell of American slavery.”

But fate would intervene on the boat ride down the Mississippi, as the boat was involved in a collision and Margaret Garner and one of her children ended up overboard.  The child drowned, but Margaret was pulled back aboard the ship.  Some claimed that Margaret “displayed frantic joy” when told of the death of her child.  Margaret herself would survive to make it to New Orleans, but would die there of typhoid fever two years later.  The Underground Railroad, which helped tens of thousands of freedom seekers escape from bondage, had been unable to help Margaret Garner.  Like her two children, and millions of other enslaved Americans before her, death was Margaret Garner’s rescuer.

 

Margaret Garner’s story became the inspiration for Lorain native Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved.  The novel, and a series of park benches she placed in “important locations in African American history” around the world, are dedicated to the memory of the slaves.  One of those benches is in Oberlin’s Toni Morrison Park on the northeast corner of Lorain and Main Streets. (Click for video, courtesy Visit Lorain County).

 

Sources consulted:

Levi Coffin, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin

Andrea Moore Kerr, Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality

Jacob William Shuckers, William Maxwell Evarts, The Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase

Mark Reinhardt, Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?

“Bench by the Road Project”, The Toni Morrison Society

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1

James Bradley – from hopeless bondage to Lane Rebel

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Seven years before the celebrated abolitionist Frederick Douglass first stood before a sympathetic audience of white abolitionists and “trembling in every limb” told them the story of his life as a slave, another ex-slave, James Bradley, stood before an audience of white colonizationists (people who believed freed slaves should be returned to Africa), and skillfully debunked the rationale of colonization and slavery.  His presentation was part of a series of academic debates on abolitionism and colonization that would have an important impact on the American abolition movement and dramatically alter the course of Oberlin’s history.

James Bradley statue

James Bradley statue – Covington, KY

The debates were held at the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, in February, 1834 (see my William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South blog post for details).  Of the approximately 45 total hours of debate time, James Bradley occupied about two hours, but an argument can be made that they were the two most important hours of the debates.  Bradley started by telling his personal story, of being born in Africa, enslaved as a toddler, and brought across the Atlantic Ocean to South Carolina.  Although we don’t have a transcript of his exact words at the debates, we do have a published account of his life story, written by him shortly afterwards.  Here are some excerpts:

A slaveholder bought me and took me up into Pendleton County, Ky.  I suppose I stayed with him about six months.  He sold me to a Mr. Bradley, by whose name I have ever since been called.  This man was considered a wonderfully kind master and it is true I was treated better than most of the slaves I knew.  I never suffered for food and never was flogged with the whip but oh, my soul!  I was tormented with kicks and knocks more than I can tell…

I used to work very hard. I was always obliged to be in the field by sunrise and labored until dark, stopping only at noon long enough to eat dinner.  When I was about 15 years old, I took what was called the cold plague in consequence of being overworked and I was sick a long time.  My master came to see me one day, and hearing me groan with pain, he said, “This fellow will never be of any more use to me.  I would as soon knock him in the head, as if he were an opossum.”  His children sometimes came in and shook axes and knives at me, as if they were about to knock me on the head…

My master kept me ignorant of everything he could.  I was never told anything about God or my soul.  Yet from the time I was 14 years old, I used to think a great deal about freedom.  It was my heart’s desire. I could not keep it out of my mind.  Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears because I was a slave.  I looked back on all I had suffered and when I looked ahead, all was dark and hopeless bondage.  My heart ached to feel within me the life of liberty.

After the death of my master I began to contrive how I might buy myself.  After toiling all day for my mistress, I used to sleep three or four hours and then get up and work for myself the remainder of the night. I made collars for horses out of plaited husks.  I could weave one in about eight hours and I generally took time enough from my sleep to make two collars in the course of a week.  I sold them for 50 cents each.  One summer, I tried to take two or three hours from my sleep every night, but I found that I grew weak and I was obliged to sleep more.  With my first money, I bought a pig.  The next year I earned for myself about $13 and the next, about $30…

I used to go out with my hoe and dig up little patches which I planted with corn…got up at night to tend it.  My hogs were fattened with this corn and I used to sell a number every year.  Besides this, I used to raise small patches of tobacco and sell it to buy more corn for my pigs.  In this way I worked five years.  At the end of which time, after taking out my losses, I found that I had earned $160.  With this money I hired my own time for two years.  During this period, I worked almost all the time, night and day.  The hope of liberty stung my nerves and braced my soul so much that I could do with very little sleep or rest.  I could do a great deal more work than I was ever able to do before.  At the end of two years, I had earned $300 besides feeding and clothing myself.  I now bought my time for 18 months longer and went 250 miles west, nearly into Texas, where I could make more money.  Here I earned enough to buy myself, including what I gave for my time, about $700.

As soon as I was free, I started for a free state.  When I arrived in Cincinnati, I heard of Lane Seminary, about two miles out of the city.  I had for years been praying to God that my dark mind might see the light of knowledge.  I asked for admission to the seminary.  They pitied me and granted my request, though I knew nothing of the studies which were required for admission.  I am so ignorant that I suppose it will take me two years to get up with the lowest class in the institution.  But in all respects I am treated just as kindly and as much like a brother by the students, as if my skin were as white and my education as good as their own…[1]

Bradley also told how he secretly taught himself to read and write, against his masters’ wishes (and against the law in most Southern states).  After telling his life story, Bradley went on to attack the concepts of slavery and colonization.  This was a crucial time in the national abolition movement, when a large number of white Americans, even those who opposed slavery, believed that blacks couldn’t be integrated with whites in large numbers without a detrimental effect on  both.  This was one of the biggest arguments against abolition and in favor of colonization.  At this point in time free blacks comprised less than 3% of the American population.  Enslaved blacks, on the other hand, made up more than 34% of the population of the Southern states (and more than 50% of the population of South Carolina and Louisiana).  The only knowledge many white Americans had of blacks came through the dehumanizing institution of slavery and the racial stereotypes that were used to rationalize it.  In the words of South Carolina’s pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun:

“…two races differing so greatly, and in so many respects, cannot possibly exist together in the same country, where their numbers are nearly equal, without the one being subjected to the other.  Experience has proved that the existing relation, in which the one is subjected to the other in the slaveholding States, is consistent with the peace and safety of both, with great improvement to the inferior…”[2]

Bradley’s mere presence at Lane Seminary, and the energy, ambition and hard work that brought him there, seriously challenged this philosophy.  But Bradley had more to say, as described by Lane student Henry B. Stanton:

This shrewd and intelligent black, cut up these white objections by the roots, and withered and scorched them under the sun of sarcastic argumentation, for nearly an hour, to which the assembly responded in repeated and spontaneous roars of laughter, which were heartily joined in by both Colonizationists and Abolitionists. Do not understand me as saying, that his speech was devoid of argument. No. It contained sound logic, enforced by apt illustrations. I wish the slanderers of negro intellect could have witnessed this unpremeditated effort.

In response to the common argument that freed slaves would be unable to take care of themselves, Bradley said: “They have to take care of, and support themselves now, and their master, and his family into the bargain; and this being so, it would be strange if they could not provide for themselves, when disencumbered from this load.”[3]

In response to the common argument that the slaves were content with their position, we know him to have written: “How strange it is that anybody should believe any human being could be a slave and yet be contented.  I do not believe there ever was a slave who did not long for liberty.  I know very well that slave owners take a great deal of pains to make people in the free states believe that slaves are happy but I know likewise that I was never acquainted with a slave, however well he was treated, who did not long to be free.”[4]

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Bradley’s contribution was critical to the debates.  Theodore Weld had the impassioned fervor and unassailable logic; William T. Allan and Huntington Lyman generated sympathy and outrage with their tales of victimization and abuse; but someone needed to attack the pervasive stereotypes and demonstrate that the John C. Calhouns were wrong.  Only James Bradley could do that, and by all accounts he did it masterfully.

After the debates, Bradley became a manager of the newly formed student anti-slavery society, and when the school tried to squelch the students’ anti-slavery activities, he became one of the “Lane Rebels” who withdrew from the school in protest.  When John J. Shipherd came down and invited the rebels  to attend Oberlin College instead, Bradley was interested.  But there was one hitch.  Oberlin College at that time didn’t have a policy to admit black students.  So the rebels demanded that such a policy be instated before they would come to Oberlin.

Shipherd, being a progressive member of the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society, was fine with this demand, but he needed the approval of the students, faculty and trustees of Oberlin College, and he expected he was in for some opposition.  He wrote back to Oberlin: “Indeed, if our Board would violate right so as to reject youth of talent and piety because they were black, I should have no heart to labor for the upbuilding of our Seminary, believing that the curse of God would come upon us, as it has upon Lane Seminary, for its unchristian abuse of the poor slave.”[5]

Opposition he expected, and opposition he got.  And then some.  It was led by none other than his colony co-founder, Philo P. Stewart, who “at once proclaimed Bro. Shipherd Mad!! crazy etc. etc. and that the School was changed into a Negro School.”  The Tappan brothers of New York offered generous financial support to the college, and the renowned revivalist minister Charles Finney offered to come to Oberlin and head a new Theological Department, if only the demands of the Lane Rebels were accepted.  But this had little or no impact on the opponents.  The college and the colony split on the issue and entered into several weeks of heated and sometimes acrimonious debate.   Finally, with Shipherd threatening to depart “for another field of labor”, the college trustees voted by a narrow 5-4 margin to accept the demands of the rebels, and Oberlin College became the first college in the country to have a formal policy of race-blind admissions.[6]

With that the Lane Rebels, James Bradley included, came to Oberlin, as did two other notable African Americans, Charles and Gideon Langston (older brothers of John Mercer Langston).  In fact so many students (the vast majority white), came to Oberlin over the next year that Oberlin College was forced to open four branch institutions in 1836 to handle the overflow.  One of these was the Sheffield Manual Labor Institute in nearby Sheffield, which stressed agricultural manual labor and preparatory coursework.  James Bradley transferred to this branch and attended along with about forty  students, including the Langston brothers, James Fitch, Mary Hosford, and Mary Kellogg (future wife of future Oberlin College President James Fairchild).

Burrell Homestead

Sheffield Manual Labor Institute at the Burrell Homestead

But things didn’t go well at Sheffield.  Its agricultural experiments failed, and the school and many of its students faced financial difficulties.  The crowning blow came when the school applied for a charter from the state of Ohio in 1837, and was told that it would only be granted if the school excluded black students.  By this time the presence of James Bradley and the Langston brothers at Oberlin and Sheffield had allayed the community’s fears, with even Philo Stewart taking “his position with the foremost of Abolitionists”, so excluding black students from any Oberlin-affiliated school was unthinkable.  (In fact, the Oberlin College campus was already openly harboring escaped slaves.)  Consequently the Sheffield institute closed, with a few of the students returning to Oberlin, but most scattering to the wind.  Unfortunately James Bradley was among the latter, and we have no record of him after leaving Sheffield.[7]

But even though we don’t know what happened to James Bradley, he clearly made his mark on Oberlin.  His sheer indomitable will propelled him out of “dark and hopeless bondage” and to the Lane Seminary debate platform 7 years before Frederick Douglass, 9 years before Sojourner Truth and William Wells Brown, and 11 years before Lewis Clarke took the national stage.  I can’t help but wonder what the results of the Lane debates might have been without him, and what the effect might have been on abolitionism and especially on the history of Oberlin.  But I’ll have to leave those questions as food for thought, along with these closing words that James Bradley wrote in his letter to abolitionist Lydia Maria Child:

“God preserve you, and strengthen you in this holy cause, until the walls of prejudice are broken down, the chains burst in pieces, and men of every color meet at the feet of Jesus, speaking kind words, and looking upon each other in love – willing to live together on earth, as they hope to live in Heaven!”  – James Bradley

Sources consulted:

Lydia Maria Child, The Oasis

Henry B. Stanton, “Great Debate at Lane Seminary”, letter to Joshua Leavitt, March 10, 1834

James Harris Fairchild, Oberlin: the colony and the college, 1833-1883

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1

“Sheffield Manual Labor Institute”, The Village Pioneer, March, 2008

“Marker #15-47 Burrell Homestead”, Ohio Historical Society

“Mr. Calhoun to Mr. Pakenham”, Proceedings of the Senate and Documents Relative to Texas, from which the Injunction of Secrecy Has Been Removed

“Catalogue and Record of Colored Students,” 1835-62, RG 5/4/3 – Minority Student Records, Oberlin College Archives

Historical Census Browser, Census Data for Year 1830,  University of Virginia Library

“Statue story of freedom”, Cincinnati.com

“James Bradley – Covington, Kentucky”, Waymarking.com

Delazon Smith, A History of Oberlin

“General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908″, Oberlin College Archives

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Child, pp.  106-107
[2] “Mr. Calhoun to Mr. Pakenham”
[3] Stanton, March 10, 1834
[4] Child, pp. 110-111
[5] Fairchild, p. 55
[6] Fletcher, Chapter XIV; Fairchild, p. 61
[7] “Sheffield Manual Labor Institute”; Fairchild p. 63; “General catalogue”; Smith, pp. 63-64

William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South

Monday, August 12th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

I’ve decided for my next two blog entries to tell the stories of two Southern rebels who had a tremendous  impact on pre-Civil War Oberlin.  But these weren’t Confederate rebels, they were Southern abolitionists, at a time when “abolitionist” was a dirty word even in the North.  They were also students of a theological seminary in Cincinnati – a college that tried to stop them from spreading their anti-slavery message and from doing good deeds among the African-American population of that city.  But these students wouldn’t be shut down.  Instead they  left that school in protest.  And they came to Oberlin, along with about two dozen of their anti-slavery brothers, in just the second year of the Oberlin colony, and put this town and college on an entirely new course that its founders couldn’t have envisioned just two years earlier.  One of these Southern rebels was the son of a respected Southern slaveholder.  The other was a native African who himself had been enslaved.

The slaveholder’s son was William T. Allan.  He was born in Tennessee in 1810, and moved with his family to Huntsville, Alabama about a decade later.  His father, John Allan, was pastor of Huntsville’s First Presbyterian Church.  John Allan owned two families of 15 slaves, who William would later say were “almost as kindly treated as slaves can be, yet they pant for liberty”. [1]  But even though he owned slaves, John Allan was opposed to slavery.  He was not an abolitionist, but a “colonizationist”, believing in the gradual emancipation of the slaves and their colonization back to Africa.  He was a co-founder of Alabama’s Society for the Emancipation of Slavery and the Madison County Colonization Society.

For a month in 1832, the Allan family had a houseguest – a young reformer from Connecticut named Theodore Weld.  Weld was on a mission from Lewis Tappan, a wealthy New York philanthropist, to travel the country and determine what kind of interest there might be for a new type of college that Lewis and his brother were interested in supporting, called a “manual labor institution”.  The idea was that students would engage in manual labor to help pay their way through college, both as a benefit to the college and as moral discipline for themselves.  To enhance the moral discipline,  the school would teach and emphasize moral values and religious purity.  As a secondary goal, Weld was to evaluate existing manual labor institutes that might be worthy of support from the Tappan brothers.

Theodore Dwight Weld

Theodore Dwight Weld

Weld did find such an institute, the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, and he spoke about it to interested young men who he met in his travels, like William T. Allan (who would become a lifelong friend) and his brother James.  Weld, the Allans, and several more of these young men enrolled in the Lane Seminary and arrived there in 1833 to begin their studies.

During the course of his nationwide tour, Weld became zealously committed to the abolitionist cause – believing that slavery was a sin and should be abolished immediately, without colonization. [2]  Once his original mission was complete, he embarked on a new, personal mission  to abolitionize the students of the Lane Seminary.  His first target was William Allan.  William was a colonizationist, like his father and like most of the Lane recruits.    But it didn’t take much effort for Weld to convert him into a full-fledged abolitionist.

With that, Allan became an ally of Weld, spreading the abolition message through the Lane student body.  Soon they had enough converts that they felt comfortable challenging the colonizationists to a series of debates.  The debates would cover 18 evenings, at two and a half hours each.  Seventeen students eagerly participated in the debates, many of them recruits who Weld had met during his travels, and most of whom had first-hand experience with slavery in the South, like James A. Thome, the son of a wealthy Kentucky slaveholder, and Huntington Lyman, a Connecticut native who had spent several years in Louisiana.

The debates were held in February, 1834.  Weld, a very powerful and persuasive orator, was the keynote speaker.  He spoke for two nights, followed by two nights of group discussion and debate.  This was followed by four nights of first-hand testimony about slavery.  This was probably the most powerful part of the debates, and William Allan led it off.  Here’s part of what he had to say:

What is slavery?  Before we can prescribe a remedy, we must understand the disease. We must know what we are attempting to cure, before we give the medicine…

At our house it is so common to hear their screams from a neighbouring plantation, that we think nothing of it. The overseer of this plantation told me one day, he laid a young woman over a log, and beat her so severely that she was soon after delivered of a dead child. A bricklayer, a neighbor of ours, owned a very smart young negro man, who ran away, but was caught. When his master got him home, he stripped him naked, tied him up by his hands, in plain sight and hearing of the academy and the public green, so high that his feet could not touch the ground ; then tied them together, and put a long board between his legs, to keep him steady. After preparing him in this way, he took a paddle, bored it full of holes, and commenced beating him with it. He continued it leisurely all day. At night his flesh was literally pounded to a jelly. It was two weeks before he was able to walk. No one took any notice of it; no one thought any wrong was done…

And lest any one should think that in general the slaves are well treated, and these are the exceptions, let me be distinctly understood — Cruelty is the rule, and kindness the exception.[3]

One audience member remarked later, “I was rejoiced to hear such a beginning from the son of a slave-holder; for I had longed to learn the true condition of the slave.”  Several other students also gave first-hand accounts of slavery, including James Thome and Huntington Lyman.  The abolitionism portion of the debates ended on the ninth evening with a vote being taken on the following question: “Ought the people of the slaveholding states to abolish slavery immediately?”  The answer was a unanimous Yes (although a few students who hadn’t made up their minds abstained from voting).

The students then entered into nine evenings of debate about the colonization issue, which included readings from extensive reports, addresses and repositories of the American Colonization Society.  According to student Henry B. Stanton, just reading the colonization society’s own promotional material was enough to change many attitudes:

Most of the Colonizationists who expressed any opinion on the subject, declared their ignorance of the doctrines and measures of the Society until this debate.  They cannot find words to express their astonishment that they should have been so duped into the support of this Society, as a scheme of benevolence towards the free blacks, and a remedy for slavery.  They now repudiate it with all their hearts.[4]

And thus when a vote was taken on the final night of the debates concerning the colonization issue, only one student voted in favor of colonization, with all the others opposed (except a handful of abstainers, as before).  The debates inspired the students to start their own anti-slavery society, with William Allan as President.  Many of the students also started distributing abolitionist literature and  going out into the Cincinnati African American community to teach and minister to the large population of ex-slaves there.  Said Henry Stanton, “Almost all of our southern brethren are engaged in colored Sabbath schools and Bible classes.  Some of them have devoted their lives in doing good to that oppressed race.”

But racism, which was prevalent in Ohio at that time (especially in Cincinnati, situated right across the Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky), reared its ugly head.  The students met with much abuse and condemnation from white residents, and the Lane Seminary itself came under fire from the local community and its supporters, many of whom were slaveholders or conducted business with slaveholders.  The school was even threatened with mob violence.  The trustees of Lane Seminary asked the students to desist from their activities, but a committee of students, chaired by William Allan, stood firm. Finally the trustees came down hard on the students, banning any further anti-slavery discussion or activities, firing a professor, and recommending expulsion procedures against Weld and William Allan.  As a result, several dozen students quit the school in protest, becoming known as the “Lane Rebels”.

When news reached Huntsville, Alabama that the Allan boys had left Lane, their father was not happy, and their neighbors were incensed when they learned of their abolitionist activities.  Said William, “They blow away against abolitionists down there at a terrible rate – say they’ll cut my throat, that I’m afraid to come home, etc.”[5] However, one of Allan’s Huntsville neighbors, James Birney, a wealthy slaveholder who had co-founded the local emancipation and colonization societies with John Allan, was so moved by the Lane debates that he emancipated all of his slaves and became an outspoken abolitionist.

The news of what happened at Lane also sent shockwaves through colleges throughout the North.  Many institutions suddenly became aware of student anti-slavery societies on their own campuses and shut them down, in hopes of staving off a similar disaster.  One college, however, had the opposite reaction.  John J. Shipherd, a member of the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society and the co-founder of a newly formed manual labor institution called the Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College), went down to Cincinnati to visit the Lane Rebels and invite them to Oberlin, promising that their philanthropic and anti-slavery activities wouldn’t be squelched there.  After a complex set of negotiations (which I’ll describe in more detail in my next blog post), about two dozen of the Rebels agreed to come to Oberlin and enroll in the newly formed Theological Department, headed by the renowned revivalist minister, Charles G. Finney, with generous financial support from the Tappan brothers.  William Allan said of the plan, “This Oberlin plan, however, has opened up a new train… That, with me, will be putting on the capstone–I shall have passed the rubicon if I should go to an institution where abolition is concentrated–at the head of which is that arch-heretic Finney.”[6] James Thome and Huntington Lyman joined Allan in heading to Oberlin.  Theodore Weld enthusiastically supported the move, but did not join in himself.  Flushed with his success at abolitionizing first William Allan and then the Lane Seminary, he instead took off on a remarkable speaking campaign across the state that would “fast abolitionize Ohio” and create dozens of new local anti-slavery societies.

When the Lane Rebels came to Oberlin in early 1835, abolitionist students who had been silenced by other colleges in the North followed suit.  Thus the fledgling colony of Oberlin became a major national center of abolitionism virtually overnight.  This was encouraged by Weld, who arrived in Oberlin in late 1835 and gave rousing anti-slavery lectures for 21 nights.   According to student James Fairchild (future Professor and College President), Weld spoke with such “fervid eloquence” that “Oberlin was abolitionized in every thought and feeling and purpose.”  The college leadership remained true to their word of allowing unrestricted free speech, although Reverend Finney did attempt to temper the enthusiasm, believing the students should devote their time to general moral reform and revivalism, which he felt would ultimately lead not only to the abolition of slavery, but of all earthly sin.  In 1836 Allan wrote to Weld, “Bro. Finney has used his heart & head & influence to convince us that it is our duty to preach. He groans over the subject & speaks of himself as being agonized about it. Thus we are situated–you and Stanton groaning on one side & Finney on the other.”[7]

But it was the groans of Weld and Stanton that persuaded Allan.  He and fellow rebels James Thome, Huntington Lyman, John Alvord, and Sereno Streeter became lecturing “agents” of the American Anti-Slavery Society, numbering among “The Seventy” apostles of aboltionism who were selected to be trained by Weld to travel all over the North, endure peltings with rotten eggs, stones and bricks, and convert thousands to the cause.  (Allan and Thome had already become members of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society at its charter meeting in Zanesville in April, 1835.)

William Allan graduated from Oberlin college in 1836 and began a long and active anti-slavery career.    He preached and lectured against slavery in Ohio, New York, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, finally settling in the latter and becoming an agent of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society.  In 1839 Theodore Weld published a testimonial from William Allan in his book about the horrors of slavery.  In the 1840s Allan became an organizer of the Illinois and Iowa chapters of the first national anti-slavery political party, the Liberty Party, which nominated his ex-Huntsville neighbor, James Birney, for President of the United States.  When William’s mother became mortally ill in 1841, his father advised him not to return home, as local sentiment was so strong against him that he feared for his safety.  John Allan himself died in 1843, freeing his slaves in his will.  William remained in Illinois and helped free slaves himself, his home becoming a sanctuary on the Underground Railroad.  He died in Illinois in 1882 after a long, distinguished and honorable public career.

Allan Grave

Allan family tomb in Illinois. (Unfortunately this is the closest we have to a picture of William T. Allan)

(By the way, if you’re wondering why I haven’t made any mention since the first paragraph of the ex-slave rebel who came to Oberlin, it’s because I’ll be telling his story in detail in my next blog post.  Stay tuned!)

Sources consulted:

Benjamin P. Thomas, Theodore Weld: Crusader for Freedom

Elizur Wright, The Quarterly Anti-slavery Magazine, Volume 1

Henry B. Stanton, “Great Debate at Lane Seminary”, letter to Joshua Leavitt, March 10, 1834

“William T. Allan and Lane Seminary”, The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1

Theodore Dwight Weld, Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké, 1822-1844, Volume 1

“Rev William T Allan”, Find a Grave

James Harris Fairchild, Oberlin: the colony and the college, 1833-1883

Theodore Dwight Weld, American Slavery as it is

Reinhard O. Johnson, The Liberty Party, 1840-1848

William Birney,  James G. Birney and his times

“James Gillespie Birney”, Huntsville History Collection

John Allan Wyeth, With Sabre and Scalpel. The Autobiography of a Soldier and Surgeon

“Rev. John Allan”, Huntsville History Collection

“General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908”, Oberlin College Archives

Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Birney, p. 106; Weld, American Slavery, p. 47

[2] Thomas, Chapter 2

[3] Wright, p. 64

[4] Stanton, March 10, 1834

[5] Thomas, Chapter 6

[6] Weld, Letters, p. 190

[7] Fairchild, p. 68, 75; Weld, Letters,  p. 324