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Juneteenth – the “extinction” of legalized slavery in America

Friday, June 12th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent, researcher and trustee

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first “Juneteenth” – June 19, 1865 – a day which has come to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.  Since Juneteenth is such an important day in modern Oberlin, and the fight against slavery was such an important part of Oberlin’s early history, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write a blog describing how American slavery ended, how Oberlin reacted to it, and why Juneteenth has been chosen as the day to celebrate it.  None of it was as straightforward as one might think.

Most people are aware that  American slavery was ended by the Civil War, and that specifically President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had something to do with it.   But the actual demise of slavery was in fact a complicated process, as might be expected of an institution that had become so deeply ingrained in the American social, political and economic landscape throughout the first “four score and 7 years” of this nation’s existence.

When President Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven slaveholding states had already declared themselves seceded from the Union and were in the process of arming themselves for potential war.   “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended,” Lincoln said in his inaugural address, “while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”   And he meant it.  Three months earlier, when slaveholding states began to call for secession conventions in response to Lincoln’s election, President-elect Lincoln told a colleague in a private dispatch: “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery… Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later.”   But while Lincoln always maintained that stopping the expansion of slavery would put it on “the course of ultimate extinction”, he also reassured slaveholders in that same inaugural address that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” [1]

Most abolitionists and Oberlinites concurred.  Initially, that is.  But surely, they thought, when the Confederate states opened fire on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, President Lincoln would use the opportunity to eradicate slavery forever.   After all, former President John Quincy Adams, who as a Constitutional lawyer successfully argued the Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court, had told Congress twenty years earlier that “under a state of actual invasion and of actual war… not only the President of the United States but the commander of the army has power to order the universal emancipation of the slaves.”  But even as Lincoln called up troops to put down the rebellion, he held fast to both his promises – he would not compromise on the extension of slavery into new territory, but he also would not interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed.  In fact as combat operations began, he censured those military commanders who took it upon themselves to emancipate the slaves in their jurisdiction, and supported military commanders who returned escaped slaves to their owners.  More than a year into the war, Lincoln would still insist that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union”, and that although his “personal wish” remained “that all men every where could be free”, he would use his war powers to free the slaves only insofar as he believed it would “save the Union”. [2]

Perplexed on how to proceed, the citizens of Oberlin called a series of public meetings during commencement week, in August, 1861, to discuss the situation.  The meetings drew not only local dignitaries, but such nationally recognized figures as the renowned abolitionist Reverend Edward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) from Massachusetts, and U.S. Representative James Ashley from Toledo.   (Ashley was himself a former Underground Railroad conductor who was portrayed, not altogether flatteringly, in Stephen Spielberg’s recent movie “Lincoln”.)  Speaking just weeks after Union forces had suffered a major, humiliating defeat in Virginia, Representative Ashley told his Oberlin audience:

“I am now on my return homewards from Washington.  I saw President Lincoln but the day before I left.  He said to me – Can you tell me why it is that one Secessionist [soldier] is equal to five Union men?  I said, Yes.  The reason is that the Secessionist has an idea; the Union men have not.  The former knows what he works and fights for.  The latter don’t know.  They must save Slavery and yet must fight it; and in this everlasting perplexity and conflict of aims and interests, they cannot have energy, or will…

 

Now, friends, if you will speak out, and if the people of the Great West will speak out, our rulers will obey.  And for myself I am not willing to give such favors to rebels as the policy of our Government thus far seems to accord them.”

James Ashley

Reverend Beecher resolved that “By virtue of the present treason and war, we have a legal right to strike Slavery down”, and “If this is not done, a dark mist of uncertainty hangs over the issue of this war.”  These sentiments resonated with the locals.  Cleveland Reverend James Thome (a former Oberlin College Professor and Lane Rebel) proclaimed, “We who have spoken out all along thus far, ought to speak out now.  Our Government needs and perhaps desires just this expression from us.  If ever there was a time when courage and unswerving boldness were in season, that time is now.”

Edward H. Fairchild, Principal of the Oberlin College Preparatory Department, took it a step further.  Not only should the slaves be freed, they should be armed and allowed to fight: “Let the blacks, bond and free, be marshalled for this contest, and come up to strike for Freedom, and to smite down this rebellion.  When armed and disciplined, let them sweep the Gulf States, take possession, and hold the country.  It is legitimately theirs.”  And according to the Oberlin Evangelist, “All agreed that, through a specially kind Providence, Slavery had put itself into a position where it may be smitten down, and that it is in the highest degree wise for the Federal Government to exercise this war power as fast as it can be done to purpose.” [3]

Jame Thome, E. H. Fairchild

But it would be more than a year later before Lincoln was finally ready to act.  And even then it wouldn’t be the “universal emancipation” that John Quincy Adams had envisioned two decades earlier.  Lincoln insisted that the Constitution only gave him authority to free the slaves in regions that were in rebellion, and thus his Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, freed only those “persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.”  Fully aware that slaveholders in those rebellious regions would not feel the least bit bound by the President’s proclamation, some abolitionists cried foul – insisting that the proclamation didn’t free any slaves at all.  But in Oberlin it was generally cheered.  The Proclamation in fact freed thousands of slaves immediately, some of them right in Oberlin, who had escaped from the rebel states and had ever since lived in constant apprehension of recapture and return to slavery.  And it was understood that with each advance of Union arms many more slaves would be freed, and many of them in turn, would “be marshalled for this contest, and come up to strike for Freedom” themselves, as Principal Fairchild had advocated more than a year earlier.  And so the Oberlin Evangelist jubilantly proclaimed: [4]

“We shall account this proclamation as the great and glorious decision.  It fixes a policy.  It is a mighty word for freedom.  Its echoes will gladden four millions of hearts where little joy has found place for many generations.  We hope the watchword as the tidings flash from one plantation to another all the way from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, will be Pray and wait.  The God of the oppressed is surely coming!”

5th USCT
5th USCT troops

And that’s exactly how it happened.  As Union armed forces made their slow but steady advance into the Confederate interior, the tidings did indeed flash from one plantation to another.  In 1864 the tidings were carried to coastal North Carolina and Virginia, as the 5th United States Colored Troops (USCT),  a regiment of “blacks, bond and free” with a strong Oberlin presence, conducted raids into rebel territory, freeing slaves as it went.  (See my Battle of New Market Heights blog.)   Hundreds of miles away the tidings flashed to Eliza Wallace, in Natchez, Mississippi, who with her three children was helped on the road to Oberlin and freedom by Oberlin resident and alumnus, Chaplain Sela Wright of the 70th United States Colored Infantry.  Nobody knows how many thousands of slaves were freed between Natchez and the Virginia coast, but it’s estimated that 130,000 of them served in the United States army.  And ultimately, after much praying and waiting, the tidings did indeed make it all the way to the Rio Grande, but not until weeks after Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, President Lincoln had been assassinated, and many considered the war to be over.  And so it was that on June 19, 1865 Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas with a proclamation that “all slaves are free” and with the military power to back it up. The promise of the Emancipation Proclamation was now complete. [5]

Sela Wright

Reverend Sela Wright, in later years

(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

But wait!  We seem to be forgetting something.  Recall that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed those slaves in regions “in rebellion against the United States”.  What about the hundreds of thousands of slaves held in regions where the rebellion had already been suppressed, or slaveholding states which had remained loyal right from the start, like Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware?  Well, the Lincoln Administration didn’t forget about them either.  In fact it employed a carrot and stick approach to entice these regions to abolish slavery voluntarily, which most of them did by the time General Granger landed in Galveston.  And for the last stubborn holdouts – Kentucky and Delaware – the Lincoln Administration had also been using a carrot and stick approach to pass a Constitutional Amendment, originally introduced into Congress by none other than Representative James Ashley (mentioned above), that would ban slavery nationwide and forever.  That amendment was finally ratified on  December 18, 1865, becoming the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, making institutional, legalized slavery extinct everywhere in the United States of America.

So why do we celebrate June 19, 1865, a date that really only affected the slaves in Galveston, Texas?  Probably for the simple reason that they and their descendants kept the memory alive, year after year after year.  Today we might be more inclined to see January 1 (the date the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect) or December 18 (the date the 13th Amendment was ratified) as more appropriate for a national celebration.   But the vast majority of slaves were freed between those two events, and with a bloody Civil War and a strife-filled Reconstruction in progress, the freed men and women had all they could do to make the difficult transition to freedom, without trying to organize a national day of commemoration.  It wasn’t until the civil rights era of the 20th century that Galveston’s celebration garnered national attention, and the idea spread slowly across the country.  In 2004 the City of Oberlin officially joined the throng by designating “Juneteenth, the Saturday in June that falls between the 13th and 19th of June each year, as an Officially Recognized day of Commemoration and Celebration.” [6]

So please join us in celebrating the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth this Saturday, June 13th, in Oberlin.  Enjoy the many cultural festivities, stop by the Oberlin Heritage Center’s booth on Tappan Square, perhaps even sign up for one of our historic tours.  But as you’re enjoying the food, music and fun, remember too the millions of Americans who endured the bitter hopelessness of this awful institution, and remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, who fought for freedom – some, like Gordon Granger, Sela Wright and the men of the 5th USCT, who freed slaves outright, and others who fought to preserve a Union that would finally bring slavery to its “ultimate extinction”.  And remember too that while institutional slavery is indeed extinct, the racial prejudices and mistrust that propagated it and were perpetuated by it are not.  But that’s our battle.

Happy Juneteenth (and go Cavs)!

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Discussion on Slavery and the War”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Sept. 11, 1861, p. 4

“Legal Notice of Coming Emancipation”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Oct. 8, 1862, p. 3

“The Emancipation Proclamation”, National Archives & Records Administration

History of Juneteenth“, Juneteenth.com

Oberlin Resolution (R01-06-CMS),  Oberlin Juneteenth, Inc.

Abraham Lincoln, First inaugural address, March 4, 1861

Abraham Lincoln to William Kellogg, December 11, 1860, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol 4

Abraham Lincoln reply to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1861, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol 5

Worthington Chauncey Ford and Charles Francis Adams,  John Quincy Adams: His Connection with the Monroe Doctrine (1823)

Oberlin News, June 12, 1893

Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895

Abraham Lincoln, “Mr. Lincoln’s Reply”, Third Joint Debate at Jonesboro, IL, Sept 15, 1858

“Wright, Sela G.”, Soldiers and Sailors Database – The Civil War, National Park Service

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

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

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] First inaugural address; Kellogg; Jonesboro

[2] Ford, Adams, p. 77; Greeley

[3] “Discussion”

[4] Emancipation Proclamation; “Legal Notice”

[5] Oberlin News; “Wright“; General catalogue; Finkelman, p. 394; “History

[6] “History“, Oberlin Resolution

Was Abolitionism a Failure?

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent and researcher

Last week the New York Times published a blog posted by Jon Grinspan that asked the question, “was abolitionism a failure?”  The author answered the question with the assertion that “as a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop.”  It probably won’t come as a great surprise to anybody that the Oberlin Heritage Center doesn’t necessarily share that view, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to reply to some of the specific issues raised in that blog, and to let one of Oberlin’s most esteemed historical figures reply to the question in general.

The basic premise of Mr. Grinspan’s blog is that abolitionism was unpopular before the Civil War, and it was only the war itself that turned Northern public opinion decidedly against slavery.  To demonstrate the unpopularity of abolitionism, the blog points to the scant support for the country’s first national abolitionist political party, the Liberty Party, and to the meager 3,000 subscribers to The Liberator, which the blog refers to as “the premier antislavery newspaper.”

Mr. Grinspan is indeed correct that the abolitionist Liberty Party, which existed in the 1840s, only garnered a paltry number of votes (6,797 in the 1840 Presidential election).   But  it should be remembered that prior to the Civil War many abolitionists were opposed to political action altogether, and very few advocated nationwide abolition by the federal government.  Instead, the majority of abolitionists looked to “moral suasion” to convince the public that slavery was wrong, believing that government action, to the extent it was necessary, would naturally follow the shift in public opinion.   This position was explained in 1835 in the Anti-Slavery Record, published by the American Anti-Slavery Society (which by 1840 would have almost 200,000 members): [1]

The reformation has commenced, both at the North and at the South.  The more the subject is discussed, by the pulpit, by the press, at the bar, in the legislative hall and in private conversation, the faster will the change proceed.  When any individual slave holder is brought to believe that slavery is sinful, he will immediately emancipate his own slaves.  When a majority of the nation are brought to believe in immediate emancipation, Congress will, of course, pass a law abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.  When the people of the several slave states are brought upon the same ground, they will severally abolish slavery within their respective limits. [2]

However, in the closing years of the 1840s the threat of slavery’s expansion caused many abolitionists to take a more active role in politics.  The old Liberty Party was dissolved and was supplanted by the Free Soil Party, which received exponentially more votes, and which in turn was supplanted by the Republican Party, which took control of the Presidency, the House of Representatives, and most Northern governorships by 1860.  And while the Free Soil and Republican parties were pragmatic political coalitions in contrast with the purely abolitionist Liberty Party,  they both espoused opposition to slavery as their core issue.  The 1860 Republican Party platform contained 7 (out of 17) planks that directly advocated anti-slavery principles and policies.  To be sure, it also included a states’ right plank leaving the legality of slavery to the individual states to determine for themselves, but the 1844 Liberty Party platform left slavery to be “wholly abolished by State authority” as well.  Pledging federal non-interference with slavery in the states where it already existed was a sentiment shared by the vast majority of abolitionists throughout the antebellum period, and was in no way an attempt to “abolish abolitionism”, as the blog describes it. [3]

As for the characterization of The Liberator as “the premier antislavery newspaper”, this is also taking a partial snapshot of the early abolitionist movement and applying it to the entire antebellum period.  The Liberator, published in Boston and edited by William Lloyd Garrison, was arguably the premier antislavery newspaper in 1831 when it was first published.  (See my William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass debate in Oberlin blog.)  But its strident disunionist, “no government” message, despite grabbing national attention, was too radical to ever develop a large subscribership, even as scores of anti-slavery newspapers proliferated throughout the Northern states over the next 3 decades, including The National Era (with a peak subscription base of 28,000),  Frederick Douglass’ Paper,  the Tappan brothers’ American Missionary (which was “read by twenty thousand church members”), and Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (with a peak weekly circulation of 200,000).  Ohio had numerous anti-slavery newspapers of its own, including the radical Garrisonite  Anti-Slavery Bugle (with Oberlin College student Lucy Stone as a correspondent), the Cleveland Morning Leader, and the Oberlin Evangelist (which itself  had a peak subscribership of over 4,300).  Thus by the start of the Civil War hundreds of thousands of Northerners were subscribing to unabashedly anti-slavery newspapers.  So it’s no wonder that William Lloyd Garrison, despite his own newspaper’s scant subscription base, could declare in 1860 that “a general enlightenment has taken place upon the subject of slavery. The opinions of a vast multitude have been essentially changed, and secured to the side of freedom.” [4]

 

Garrison & Stone

But even in the lean years of the 1830s and early 1840s, abolitionists had enough clout to make a significant impact.  In 1835 they launched a mass mailing campaign, sending hundreds of thousands of anti-slavery publications to clergymen and prominent leaders nationwide.  Southern slaveholders felt so threatened by this campaign that they began a program of postal censorship, with South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun advising them to “prohibit the introduction or circulation of any paper or publication which may, in their opinion, disturb or endanger the institution” of slavery.  Even President Andrew Jackson, himself a slaveholder, asked Congress in his Annual Message to censor the mail “in the Southern states”.  Some of the less politically inhibited early abolitionists also  flooded Congress with tens of thousands of anti-slavery petitions – so many that slaveholders tried unsuccessfully to prohibit (“gag”) anti-slavery petitions in the Senate and did succeed in gagging them in the House of Representatives from 1836 to 1844. [5]

Although the leaders of the South did indeed manage to squelch the abolitionists in the southern states, their assault on free speech and constitutional rights only served to strengthen the abolitionist message in the North, where many Southern-born abolitionists emigrated and added their voices to the chorus.  (See my William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South blog.)  One of these was Oberlin’s John Mercer Langston, born in Virginia to an emancipated slave, sent to Ohio in his youth to escape the growing racial repression in the South, and educated at Oberlin College.  On August 2, 1858, now a successful attorney and political leader, Langston delivered a “very stirring and excellent” speech to a Cleveland audience describing his impressions of the American abolitionist movement.  Here are some excerpts: [6]

The achievements of the American anti -slavery movement since that time have been such as to impart hope and courage to every heart. Of course, I do not refer to the achievements of any separate and distinct organization. I refer to the achievements of that complicated and stupendous organization composed of persons from all parts of this country, whose aim is the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of the colored American. What, then, are some of its accomplishments? In the first place, it has brought the subject of slavery itself distinctly and prominently before the public mind. Indeed, in every nook and corner of American society this matter now presents itself, demanding, and in many instances receiving, respectful consideration. There is no gathering of the people, whether political or religious, which is not now forced to give a place in its deliberations to this subject. Like the air we breathe, it is all-pervasive. Through this widespread consideration the effects of slavery upon the slave, the slaveholder, and society generally, have been very thoroughly demonstrated ; and as the people have understood these effects they have loathed and hated their foul cause. Thus the public conscience has been aroused, and a broad and deep and growing interest has been created in behalf of the slave.

In the next place, it has vindicated, beyond decent cavil even, the claim of the slave to manhood and its dignities. No one of sense and decency now thinks that the African slave of this country is not a man…

More than this, the anti-slavery movement has brought to the colored people of the North the opportunities of developing themselves intellectually and morally. It has unbarred and thrown open to them the doors of colleges, academies, law schools, theological seminaries and commercial institutions, to say nothing of the incomparable district school. Of these opportunities they have very generally availed themselves; and now, wherever you go, whether to the East or the West, you will find the colored people comparatively intelligent, industrious, energetic and thrifty, as well as earnest and determined in their opposition to slavery… In the State of Ohio alone thirty thousand colored persons are the owners of six millions of dollars’ worth of property, every cent of which stands pledged to the support of the cause of the slave. Animated by the same spirit of liberty that nerved their fathers, who fought in the Revolutionary war and war of 1812, to free this land from British tyranny, they are the inveterate and uncompromising enemies of oppression, and are willing to sacrifice all that they have, both life and property, to secure its overthrow. But they have more than moral and pecuniary strength. In some of the States of this Union all of their colored inhabitants, and in others a very large class of them, enjoy the privileges and benefits of citizens. This is a source of very great power…

Another achievement of the American anti-slavery movement is the emancipation of forty or fifty thousand fugitive slaves, who stand to-day as so many living, glowing refutations of the brainless charge that nothing has, as yet, been accomplished…

But the crowning achievement of the anti-slavery movement of this country is the establishment, full and complete, of the fact that its great aim and mission is not merely the liberation of four millions of American slaves, and the enfranchisement of six hundred thousand half freemen, but the preservation of the American Government, the preservation of American liberty itself. It has been discovered, at last, that slavery is no respecter of persons, that in its far reaching and broad sweep it strikes down alike the freedom of the black man and the freedom of the white one. This movement can no longer be regarded as a sectional one. It is a great national one. It is not confined in its benevolent, its charitable offices, to any particular class; its broad philanthropy knows no complexional bounds. It cares for the freedom, the rights of us all… [7]

John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston

Of course Langston would be among the first to tell you that race relations in the North were far from perfect in 1858, but they had clearly come a long way since the advent of The Liberator and the Liberty Party.  As a gauge of just how far they had come, consider this:  in 1837, an abolitionist journalist named Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by a mob in Alton, Illinois, for expressing anti-slavery sentiments.  Two decades later, in October 1858, an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln took the podium in that same town and said this:

I have said, and I repeat it here, that if there be a man amongst us who does not think that the institution of slavery is wrong in any one of the aspects of which I have spoken, he is misplaced, and ought not to be with us…

Has anything ever threatened the existence of this Union save and except this very institution of slavery? What is it that we hold most dear amongst us? Our own liberty and prosperity. What has ever threatened our liberty and prosperity, save and except this institution of slavery? If this is true, how do you propose to improve the condition of things by enlarging slavery,-by spreading it out and making it bigger? You may have a wen or cancer upon your person, and not be able to cut it out, lest you bleed to death; but surely it is no way to cure it, to engraft it and spread it over your whole body. That is no proper way of treating what you regard a wrong. You see this peaceful way of dealing with it as a wrong,-restricting the spread of it, and not allowing it to go into new countries where it has not already existed…

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. [8]

But far from being lynched, Lincoln was applauded for these words in 1858, and this and similar speeches gained for him the national recognition that would help elect him to the Presidency two years later.  It was the heroic efforts of people like Elijah Lovejoy, John Mercer Langston, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone, and thousands of other abolitionist teachers, preachers, lecturers, authors, journalists, politicians, Underground Railroad agents, and parents (many of them educated at Oberlin College) that made that possible.

LovejoyMonument

Elijah Lovejoy monument – Alton, Illinois

Just six weeks after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina would secede from the Union, stating as the cause that the Northern states had “united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery” and who believed that “the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” [9]

As it turns out, it was.  The attempt to avoid that reality via secession only served to hasten its demise.

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Jon Grinspan, “Was Abolitionism a Failure?“, New York Times, January 30, 2015

John Mercer Langston, “The World’s Anti-Slavery Movement; Its Heroes and its Triumphs

Abraham Lincoln, “Last Joint Debate at Alton; Mr. Lincoln’s Reply

The Anti-Slavery Record, Vol 1, No. 1, January 1835

Republican Party Platform of 1860“, The American Presidency Project

Free Soil Party Platform (1848)“, Teacher’s Guide Primary Source Document Collection

1844 Liberty Party Platform“, Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project

The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States“, Civil War Trust

William Lloyd Garrison, The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison: From disunionism to the brink of war, 1850-1860

John C. Calhoun, Speeches of John C. Calhoun. Delivered in the Congress of the United States from 1811 to the present time

James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1907, Volume 3

William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

1840 Presidential Election Results“, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Robert S. Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College from its Foundation through the Civil War

Stanley Harrold, The Abolitionists & the South

About New-York Tribune“, Library of Congress

Blacks and the American Missionary Association“, The United Church of Christ

American Anti-Slavery Society“, Encyclopaedia Britannica

 All photos public domain.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “1840 Presidential Election”; “American Anti-Slavery Society”

[2] Anti-Slavery Record

[3] “Republican Party”; “Free Soil Party”; “1844 Liberty Party”

[4] Harrold, p. 142; “Blacks”; “About New-York”; Fletcher, Chapter XXVII; Garrison, p. 698

[5] Calhoun; Richardson, p. 176

[6] Cheek, pp. 325-326

[7] Langston

[8] Lincoln

[9] “The Declaration of Causes

A Medal of Honor and a Holy… euchre deck?

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

November 1864 – 150 years ago this month – saw a curious spectacle in the American Civil War.  After Union General William Sherman captured the city of Atlanta from Confederate General John Bell Hood, both armies turned and headed away from each other, with the goal of bringing the hard hand of war to their opponent’s civilian infrastructure.  Sherman headed southeast on his infamous March to the Sea, intending to “make Georgia howl”.  Hood turned north on what could have been just as infamous a march, perhaps even inducing some howling north of the Ohio River.  But where Sherman’s march was a success, Hood’s march failed to even make it out of Tennessee.  An Oberlin man would earn the Medal of Honor and an interesting keepsake for the part he played in stopping him.

John Whedon Seele
John Whedon Steele
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives [1])

His name was John Whedon Steele, and he missed by only a few miles becoming one of the first citizens born in Oberlin.  Instead he was born near Akron as his parents migrated en route to Oberlin from New York in 1835.  His father, Dr. Alexander Steele, would become Oberlin’s first full-time physician.  His younger brother, George, would become an Oberlin College professor and co-founder of the music conservatory.  But it appears that John always had somewhat of a reputation as a renegade (well… by early Oberlin standards, that is).  Nevertheless he attended Oberlin College, got his law degree in Michigan, and returned to Oberlin just before the start of the Civil War. [2]

At the outbreak of war, Steele joined with Alonzo Pease (artist, Underground Railroad operative, and nephew of Oberlin’s first settlers) to recruit a company of infantry.  The company would eventually muster into service as Company H of the 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, with Pease as Captain and Steele as First Lieutenant.   They soon found themselves in the “western theater” of operations, ultimately making their way to Tennessee, and Steele was promoted and transferred to Captain of Company E.  According to the Lorain County News, this company was “made up of roystering blades from Cleveland and other cities which have made their previous commanders much trouble.  John [Steele], however, suits them to a dot and they are fast working into a state of superior discipline.”   Steele would lead this company in a “gallantly and successfully” executed charge against a rebel battery at the first bloodbath battle of the war, the Battle of Shiloh, in April, 1862. [3]

It wouldn’t be long, however, before Steele was again promoted and transferred, this time to Major, ultimately serving as aide-de-camp on the staff of General David S. Stanley’s 4th Corps.  Although we sometimes tend to think of staff officers as holding cushy desk jobs, nothing could be further from the truth for many of them.  In the Civil War, staff officers were often in the thick of battle, relaying orders from their superiors to the troops on the field, directing troop movements, and coordinating attacks.  Such appears to be the case with Major Steele.  He participated in two more epic bloodbaths, at Stones River and Chickamauga, before joining in General Sherman’s four month campaign to capture Atlanta in the summer of 1864. [4]

After Sherman took that city, the two armies engaged in two months of cat-and-mouse warfare in northern Georgia and Alabama in which they failed to come to a general engagement.  Finally they turned and went their separate ways, in General Stanley’s words, “like two school boys… each saying ‘Well I cannot whip you but I can kick over your bread basket.'”   But before Sherman turned east to kick over Georgia’s bread basket, he detached two corps under General John Schofield, with orders to join forces with Union General George Thomas in Nashville and stop Hood’s advance.  General Stanley’s 4th Corps, with Major Steele as aide-de-camp, was included in Schofield’s detachment. [5]

Hood now knew that his northward journey would be a difficult one, but being one of the most aggressive commanders in the war, he was not deterred.  His army was larger than either Thomas’ or Schofield’s detachments, and he believed that if he could isolate them and bring them to battle independently, he could destroy them in kind, then turn his attention to Ohio’s “bread basket”, or perhaps come to the rescue of Robert E. Lee’s besieged army in Virginia (see my Battle of New Market Heights blog).

Spring Hill-Franklin Campaign, 1864
(Troop movements and positions are approximated and simplified, for clarity’s sake)

Hood’s first victim was to be General Schofield, who had a vulnerable supply line leading back to the main Union depot at Nashville.  Hood devised a plan whereby he would march his army around Schofield’s flank to Spring Hill, Tennessee, where he could cut that supply line and isolate Schofield from Thomas before they had a chance to link up.

The movement was accomplished brilliantly, but when Hood’s troops arrived at Spring Hill on November 29, they were met by a division of General Stanley’s 4th Corps, which had been sent in advance with Schofield’s wagon train.  It’s not known what part Major Steele played in the fierce fighting that accompanied this part of the battle, but his comrades held their ground, and the rebels retired at nightfall.

They didn’t retire far, however.  In fact they went into bivouac right alongside the turnpike that General Schofield’s troops would have to travel to get to Nashville.  It was an “extremely perilous” situation for the federals, and Schofield decided he needed to get out of it – quick.  So he ordered a night march in which his troops would tramp as quietly as possible up the turnpike past the resting Confederates. [6]

Amazingly, it worked.  Well, almost.  Schofield’s infantry marched cleanly out of the trap.  But bringing up the rear was the slow, cumbersome wagon train – 800 wagons and caissons carrying the food, ammunition, medicines, and artillery needed to support Schofield’s infantry.  With most of the infantry already gone, the train creaked and groaned up the narrow turnpike, past the campfires of the rebel troops, escorted only by a scant guard.  It was, in General Stanley’s words, “like treading upon the thin crust covering a smouldering volcano.” [7]

Then at about 3:00 A.M. the volcano blew.  Several regiments of Confederate cavalry launched a flank attack against the head of the helpless wagon train.  Years later, General Stanley, who was “thrown into despair” by the news, described what happened next: [8]

“My two most vigilant staff officers, General [then Colonel] Fullerton and Colonel [then Major] Steele … were near the point attacked which was about four miles from Spring Hill.  Instantly they took measures to repel the attack.  They found our headquarter’s guard…  This company was about thirty-five strong and commanded by a gallant young officer, Captain Scott.  Using this as a nucleus, these gallant officers picked up from train guards, headquarter’s guards, anyone carrying a gun, a little body of men, marched up to point blank range, gave the rebels a volley which cleared the road, and very soon our big train moved on again.” [9]

Interestingly, in Stanley’s original report to headquarters, he gave all the credit to Major Steele, with no mention of Fullerton or Scott.  But by all accounts less than five percent of the Union wagons were destroyed; the rest were saved by the makeshift strike force, whose boldness apparently deceived the rebels into believing the train guard was much larger than it really was. [10]

At daybreak, Hood was furious to learn that Schofield had slipped out of his trap.  Now that his best opportunity to prevent a link-up between Schofield and Thomas was lost, he would throw his troops headlong into Schofield’s command in desperation.  That reckless assault would occur late that afternoon, November 30th, fifteen miles north of Spring Hill, at Franklin, against stout Union defenses prepared largely by another Oberlin alumnus, Major General Jacob Cox of the 23rd Corps, and supplied in part by the wagon train that had been saved by Steele’s improvised force that morning.   The result was arguably the most devastating defeat suffered by the Confederate army in the entire war.  Six Confederate generals were mortally wounded that day.  Only one Union general was wounded, and that was General Stanley, who was struck by a bullet in the  neck as he took the field to help lead a countercharge and close a dangerous breach that had opened in his lines.  Major Steele was reported to be with him; that is, until he was knocked off his horse by a rebel Minié ball (a large caliber rifled bullet notorious for its bone-shattering effects) that passed through his breast pocket.  But Hood was repulsed, and that night Schofield slipped away again, ultimately to hook up with General Thomas at Nashville, where two weeks later they virtually destroyed what was left of Hood’s army.  Ohio was saved from invasion. [11]

Jacob Dolson Cox
Jacob Dolson Cox [12]

Meanwhile, Stanley and Steele were furloughed to convalesce from their wounds.  Steele would tell the Oberlin townsfolk how his life had been saved by the contents of his breast pocket, which absorbed the impact of the Minié ball that struck him down.  But this wasn’t the classic narrative of the devout war hero saved by a bullet-stopping Bible.  Instead, Steele liked to tell how he was hit “in my euchre deck”.  (One can only wonder whether the theologians of Oberlin shook their heads in disappointment over the card-playing, cigar-smoking, renegade hero!) [13]

Steele recovered and returned to action, this time in Texas, to fight the last major Confederate hold-out, General Edmund Kirby Smith.  He received one more promotion, to brevet Lieutenant Colonel, before he was mustered out of service in 1866.

But his life of service was only just beginning.  He returned to Oberlin and became active in all aspects of community life and politics.  He served as Lorain County Probate Judge and for many years as Oberlin’s Postmaster.  At a community meeting in February, 1866, he delivered a speech and joined in passing a set of resolutions supporting Congress in its growing rift with President Andrew Johnson over Reconstruction policy.  Among the resolutions passed was one exhorting Congress “to give the control of the nation to its loyal inhabitants, and full protection to the freed men in the exercises of all rights and privileges we claim for ourselves.” [14]

He was a staunch advocate of a reliable, safe community water supply, and played a crucial role in bringing it to fruition.  He also worked tirelessly for other modern improvements, as well as community beautification.  “We’ve got to keep moving,” he told a community meeting.  “No psychology or theology will make a person who is accustomed to a marble lavatory, satisfied with a wash bowl on a stump.  Self-inflicted torture is out of date… The world moves and we have to move with it.  In fact we ought to move a little ahead of it.” [15]

He firmly believed that citizens ought to “so arrange our private affairs as not to close the door against our public duties.”  And practicing what he preached, he accepted an appointment as a trustee of the County Children’s Home in Oberlin.   In the words of Oberlin College Professor Azariah S. Root, “One had only to see the Judge as he was about the place and witness the affectionate attitude of the children toward him, to realize how much of genuine, loving service he was giving to the enterprise…” [16]

In 1897 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for “saving the train” at the Battle of Spring Hill 33 years earlier, and President William McKinley, a fellow Ohio Republican Civil War veteran, invited him to the White House.  (Interestingly, Steele’s commanding officer, General Stanley, received the Medal of Honor four years earlier for the counterattack he “gallantly led” at the Battle of Franklin in which he and Steele were wounded.)

Steele’s final public service was one of particular honor and responsibility.  He was selected to distribute the funds that had been donated by  Andrew Carnegie to students and residents of Oberlin who had been financially devastated by the failure of the Citizens Bank in the wake of the Cassie Chadwick scandal.  According to Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King, “no one could be associated with him in that work, and not recognize the great pains with which he went into the multitudes of cases, following them out with insight and tact and sympathy, carrying often their burden as though it were an individual burden of his own.” [17]

It is noteworthy that Steele, a non-religious man, should gain such a reputation for “uncompromising honesty” and trustworthiness in the devoutly pious community of early Oberlin.  He did in time, however, confess to telling one little white lie.  In an 1886 interview with a Chicago newspaper, Steele divulged that the bullet-stopping contents of his pocket on the battlefield that distant day was not a euchre deck after all.  But neither was it a New Testament or an Old Testament.  Instead it was a leather-bound memorandum book, which he kept and passed on to his family, bullet hole and all.  When asked why he had told the “staid but patriotic professors at Oberlin” that it was a euchre deck, Steele explained: “You see, I was afraid they would distort my memorandum book into a Testament, and make a text of the incident, and I had to do a little hedging to keep myself out of the pulpit.” [18]

On April 26, 1905 the pulpit caught up with Colonel Steele nonetheless, when at the age of 69 he died of a heart ailment.  The Oberlin News devoted its entire front page and much of its second page to an obituary and the transcripts of three eulogies delivered at his funeral service at First Church.  One of the eulogists was Oberlin College President King, whose words I close with:

“…In his death Oberlin loses one of her most individual links with her past, and one of her most interesting and important citizens.  Thinking himself, doubtless, sometimes out of sympathy with much in Oberlin, he nevertheless showed a persistent and an almost unmatched devotion to her interests, both in the defense of her reputation and in care for her practical interests…

We are coming to understand now what was not so clear in the days of his young manhood, that we cannot require the same kind of response from widely different temperaments.

… but his close friends learned to see that a sometimes brusque manner was the shield of a marked sensitiveness and a rare tenderness that yet could not be wholly hidden.  And those did not know him who had not seen in him that delicate courtesy that seems often to belong to the true soldier – a courtesy that was more than courtliness, full of genuine human feeling, and free from all affectation and every trace of condescension.  He was a rare friend and a rare public servant.” [19]

Steele tombstone

John Whedon Steele is buried in Westwood Cemetery, Section R, where his grave is a stop on the Oberlin Heritage Center’s “Radicals and Reformers” history walk.

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Wilbur H. Phillips, Oberlin Colony: The Story of a Century

“Another Honored Citizen Gone”, Oberlin News, May 2, 1905, pp. 1-2

David S. Stanley, Personal Memoirs of Major-General D. S. Stanley

“John W. Steele Ex ’60”, Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Vol 1, pp. 238-239

“Col. J. W. Steele”, The Elyria Republican, July 29, 1886

John K. Shellenberger, The Battle of Spring Hill, Tennessee

Dennis W. Belcher, General David S. Stanley, USA: A Civil War Biography

Jamie Gillum, Stephen M. Hood, Twenty-five Hours to Tragedy: The Battle of Spring Hill

“The 41st O.V.”, Lorain County News, April 16, 1862, p. 2

“The 41st O.V. before, at and after the Battle of Pittsburg Landing”, Lorain County News, April 30, 1862, p. 2

“The Voice of Oberlin, Its Words for the Crisis”, Lorain County News, March 7, 1866, p. 3

Official Records of the Rebellion (abbrev. “O.R.” below)

“Promoted”, Lorain County News, February 29, 1862, p. 2

George Frederick Wright, A Standard History of Lorain County, Ohio

Oberlin College Archives, “Steele, John Whedon 1851-1858” student file, RG 28, Series 1, Sub-series 1, Box 241

41st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry (1861-1865)“, Ohio Civil War Central

Jacob Dolson Cox (1828-1900)“, The North Carolina Civil War Experience

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

General Catalogue of Oberlin College, 1833 [-] 1908, Oberlin College Archives, p. 1582

“Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database”, National Park Service

“Pension applications for service in the US Army between 1861 and 1900”, National Archives.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Steele, John Whedon 1851-1858” student (alumnus) file, Box 241

[2] Phillips, pp. 220, 234

[3] “Promoted”, “The 41st O.V.”; “The 41st O.V. before…”; O.R. Series I, Volume X, Part 1, p. 324

[4] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[5] Stanley, pp. 196-197

[6] O.R. Series 1, Vol 45, Part 1, p. 1138

[7] Stanley, p. 204

[8] O.R. Series 1, Vol 45, Part 1, p. 115

[9] Stanley, p. 205

[10] O.R. Series 1, Vol 45, Part 1, p. 115

[11] ibid.; Belcher, p. 213; “Col. J. W. Steele”; Phillips, pp. 223-224

[12] “Jacob Dolson Cox (1828-1900)

[13] “Col. J.W. Steele”; Phillips, pp. 224, 239

[14] “The Voice of Oberlin”

[15] Phillips, pp. 153, 233; “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[16] Phillips, p. 234; Wright, p. 183; “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[17] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[18] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”; Phillips, pp. 224, 234; “Col. J.W. Steele”

[19] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

William Howard Day & Lucie Stanton

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

In 1850, a young African American couple from Oberlin,  acclaimed as up-and-coming spokespersons against slavery and racial injustice, gazed with optimism towards a future of bright hope for themselves, their race, and their country.  But as they took their leave of Oberlin to spread that hope through Ohio and the nation, they could little imagine the disappointment and disillusion they would suffer over the next several years. In the long run they would see their efforts rewarded, but only after a temporary separation from their country and a permanent separation from each other.  Their names were William Howard Day and Lucie Stanton.

William Howard Day
William Howard Day
(courtesy University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

William Howard Day came to Oberlin in 1843 at the age of 17, where he enrolled in the collegiate program at Oberlin College.  He brought with him a strong disdain for slavery and racial injustice, learned from his mother, who had escaped from slavery in upstate New York and settled in Manhattan.  It was there, as a nine year old boy, that William witnessed the terrible race riots that wreaked havoc on Reverend Charles G. Finney’s chapel and the home of abolitionist Lewis Tappan.  But now, attending the college that Finney and Tappan had done so much to turn into an abolitionist stronghold, William wasted no time in making his mark. [1]

He became close friends with George Vashon, who in 1844 would become the first black student to receive a Bachelor’s Degree from Oberlin College, and Sabram Cox, another African American who was one of Oberlin’s most important Underground Railroad operatives.   Working closely with Vashon and Cox, William became a leading orator and organizer of the Oberlin black community.  On August 1, 1844, as Oberlin’s black citizens celebrated their third annual observance of the anniversary of British emancipation in the West Indies, William stood before the crowd to “commemorate the emancipation of eight hundred thousand of our fellow men from the galling yoke of slavery” and urged his “‘Colored friends [to] struggle on – struggle on!  Be not despondent, we shall at last conquer.”  The audience listened to William’s speech with such “great interest” that they requested it be reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist. [2]

During the long winter recesses between semesters, William would travel to Canada and teach in the many black settlements founded there by refugees from American slavery.  He also found employment in Oberlin during the school months as a typesetter for the Oberlin Evangelist.  And as new students enrolled in Oberlin College, he developed new friendships.  Among these were Charles and John Mercer Langston, and Lawrence W. Minor, all of whom would become important contributors to Oberlin’s black community.  Another new friendship was with Lucie Stanton. [3]

Lucie (often spelled Lucy) came to Oberlin in 1846, William’s senior year.  She had been raised in Cleveland in a home that was a station on the Underground Railroad.  In Cleveland she attended public school with white children, but eventually she was forced, “heart-broken”, to leave because of her race.  It was against state law at that time for black children to attend public school, so her stepfather, a wealthy African American barber, started his own private school in Cleveland, which Lucie attended.  Thus Lucie, like William, came to Oberlin highly conscious of American racism and slavery.  She and William naturally gravitated towards each other and began a courtship that would last several years. [4]

William graduated in 1847, becoming the third black student to earn a Bachelor’s Degree from Oberlin College.  He was chosen to give a commencement address, which he entitled “The Millenium of Liberty” and was reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist. [5]  William remained in Oberlin after graduating, continuing to work for the Evangelist, and helping to organize Oberlin’s “vigilance committee”- black residents that would protect the community against “men-thieves”.  In 1848, William, together with Sabram Cox, Lawrence Minor, John Watson, and Harlow H. Pease (the white nephew of Oberlin’s first resident, Peter Pindar Pease) called together a “Meeting of Colored Citizens” of Lorain County, where they passed eleven resolutions, including: [6]

1. Resolved, That we the colored citizens of Lorain county hereby declare, that whereas the Constitution of our common country gives us citizenship, we hereby, each to each, pledge ourselves to support the other in claiming our rights under the United States Constitution, and in having the laws oppressing us tested…

4. Resolved, That we still adhere to the doctrine of urging the slave to leave immediately with his hoe on his shoulder, for a land of liberty…

5. Resolved, That we urge all colored persons and their friends, to keep a sharp look-out for men-thieves and their abettors, and to warn them that no person claimed as a slave shall be taken from our midst without trouble… [7]

William was making a name for himself as a superb organizer and orator, and he would be a driving force in local, state and national black civil rights/anti-slavery conventions for the next decade.  In January, 1849, at the “State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio” in Columbus, William delivered a speech in the Hall of Representatives of the Ohio General Assembly, becoming the first black person to address a session of that body.  It was an important milestone for Ohioans and for 23-year-old William, as he urged the Assembly to repeal Ohio’s notoriously discriminatory “Black Laws”:

We believe … that every human being has rights in common, and that the meanest of those rights is legitimately beyond the reach of legislation, and higher than the claims of political expediency…

We ask for equal privileges, not because we would consider it a condescension on your part to grant them – but because we are MEN, and therefore entitled to all the privileges of other men in the same circumstances…

We ask for school privileges in common with others, for we pay school taxes in the same proportion.

We ask permission to send our deaf and dumb, our lunatic, blind, and poor to the asylums prepared for each.

We ask for the repeal of the odious enactments, requiring us to declare ourselves “paupers, vagabonds, or fugitives from justice,” before we can “lawfully” remain in the State.

We ask that colored men be not obliged to brand themselves liars, in every case of testimony in “courts of justice” where a white person is a party…

We ask that we may be one people, bound together by one common tie, and sheltered by the same impartial law…

Let us … inform our opposers that we are coming – coming for our rights – coming through the Constitution of our common country – coming through the law – and relying upon God and the justice of our cause, pledge ourselves never to cease our resistance to tyranny, whether it be in the iron manacles of the slave, or in the unjust written manacles for the free. [8]

Ohio’s Black Laws had been in effect since the early days of statehood and had survived multiple attempts at repeal.  But William’s timing was perfect in 1849.  It so happened that the General Assembly was deadlocked between representatives of the Democratic and Whig parties, with a handful of abolitionist members of the new anti-slavery Free Soil Party holding the balance of power – and willing and able to wield that power effectively.  And so, less than a month after William’s passionate appeal, the General Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority to repeal most of the Black Laws, and to permit public schooling of black children (albeit racially segregated, for the most part).  It was a significant step forward for Ohio, and a major victory for William. [9]

But William wasn’t the only one achieving major breakthroughs during this period of time.  Back at Oberlin College, Lucie was elected the first black President of the Ladies’ Literary Society in 1850, and then became the first African American woman in the country to earn a college degree.  Lucie also was chosen to deliver a commencement address, which was also reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist.  With a “charming voice, modest demeanor, appropriate pronunciation and graceful cadences”, she delivered “A Plea for the Oppressed”: [10]

Dark hover the clouds. The Anti-Slavery pulse beats faintly. The right of suffrage is denied. The colored man is still crushed by the weight of oppression. He may possess talents of the highest order, yet for him is no path of fame or distinction opened. He can never hope to attain those privileges while his brethren remain enslaved. Since, therefore, the freedom of the slave and the gaining of our rights, social and political, are inseparably connected, let all the friends of humanity plead for those who may not plead their own cause…

Truth and right must prevail. The bondsman shall go free. Look to the future! Hark! the shout of joy gushes from the heart of earth’s freed millions! It rushes upward. The angels on heaven’s outward battlements catch the sound on their golden lyres, and send it thrilling through the echoing arches of the upper world. How sweet, how majestic, from those starry isles float those deep inspiring sounds over the ocean of space! Softened and mellowed they reach earth, filling the soul with harmony, and breathing of God–of love–and of universal freedom. [11]

And so with boundless optimism, Lucie left Oberlin and found employment in Columbus, teaching in the newly established public schools for black children, while William moved to Cleveland, where he became a correspondent for an anti-slavery newspaper called the Daily True Democrat and was active in the Cleveland vigilance committee, assisting refugees from slavery.  He also remained active in conventions, and in 1851 he took aim at the Ohio Constitution and its restriction of voting rights to “white male inhabitants” only. [12]

The discriminatory word “white” in the Ohio Constitution had been a target of progressives for decades, even though the Ohio courts had since diluted it to the point that light-skinned black men like William could now vote in some localities.  Even so, William set his sights at eliminating the word completely, and a state Constitutional Convention held in 1850-1851 gave him just that opportunity.  A “State Convention of Colored Men” was held concurrently in Columbus, and William was given the chance to address both conventions simultaneously in January, 1851.  Using statistics compiled by John Mercer Langston, William told the conventions: [13]

We respectfully represent to you, that the continuance of the word “white” in the Ohio State Constitution, by which we are deprived of the privilege of voting for men to make laws by which we are to be governed, is a violation of every principle [of our fathers of the revolution]…

Again, colored men are helping, through their taxes, to bear the burdens of the State, and we ask, shall they not be permitted to be represented?…  In returns from nineteen counties represented, we find the value of real estate and personal property belonging to colored persons in those counties, amounting to more than three millions of dollars…  [We] think the amount above specified, certainly demands at your hands some attention, so that while colored men bear cheerfully their part of the burdens of the State, they may have their part of the blessings…

We ask, Gentleman, in conclusion, that you will place yourselves in our stead,- that you will candidly consider our claim, and as justice shall direct you, so to decide.  In your hands, our destiny is placed.  To you, therefore, we appeal.  We look to you “To give us our rights – for we ask for nothing more.” [14]

But this time William’s timing wasn’t so good.  In fact, it was off by decades.  The delegates of the Constitutional convention voted overwhelmingly to retain the word “white” in the new Constitution.

It was the first of a long string of disappointments, but still William and Lucie battled on.  In 1852 they joined in matrimony and Lucie returned to Cleveland.  In 1853, William started his own newspaper, The Aliened American, the first African American newspaper in Ohio.  The paper employed a highly impressive and “intelligent corps of male and female correspondents”, which included Lucie, who wrote a fictional story for the first issue about an enslaved brother and sister.  The story, entitled “Charles and Clara Hayes”, has been recognized as “the first instance of published fiction by a black woman”.  The Aliened American dealt with local and state racial issues, but William also tackled national issues, including in his first issue an editorial rebuttal of President Franklin Pierce’s recent inaugural address:  “The President forgot, or if he did not forget, cared not to remember, that the South, for whom he was pleading, tramples every day upon the Constitutional rights of free citizens.” [15]

But the trampling of Constitutional rights, by the North as well as the South, was taking its toll.  In 1854, the Ohio General Assembly expelled William from the Senate press gallery largely because of his race.  (See my Oberlin Commenst this War! blog)  In 1850 the U.S. Congress passed the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, and the Pierce Administration now demonstrated the lengths the government would go to in order to enforce it when they sent “several companies of marines, cavalry and artillery” to Boston to rendition a single fugitive, Anthony Burns.  And the United States Congress overturned the long-respected Missouri Compromise by allowing slavery into U.S. territories that had been guaranteed free.  William, who had been criticized by some of the more militant black leaders for  “wrap[ping] the stars and stripes of his country around him”, began to take a more militant stance himself.  The crowning blow came in 1856, when William and Lucie were returning from a trip to the black settlements in Canada and ended up making the long journey by train and wagon because they were denied a berth on a Michigan passenger boat due to the color of their skin.  The incident, and the ensuing unsuccessful lawsuit against the boat operator, devastated William emotionally and financially, and crushed his remaining faith in American justice. [16]

And so it was, in 1856, that William and Lucie joined thousands of other refugees from American racial oppression and relocated to Canada.  There they had a child and took an active role in helping the Canadian vigilance committees protect even Canadian blacks from being kidnapped into American slavery.  In 1858, when the radical white Ohio abolitionist, John Brown, visited Canada to recruit support for a planned slave insurgency in the heart of the American south, William agreed to print his “Provisional Constitution” for him, but refused to participate any further. [17]  (An original Day print of this document recently fetched $22,800 at auction.)

In 1859 William sailed to Britain to solicit financial support “to establish a Press … for the special benefit of the Fugitive Slaves and coloured population” of Canada.  He was still there when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, and so he also urged the British people to reject the Confederacy and support the Union.  But he also solicited funds for a new colonization effort in Africa led by his militant friend, Martin Delany. [18]

The long separation from his wife, however – leaving her to raise their child alone – irreparably damaged their marriage.  When President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Days found faith enough in the United States to return and dedicate themselves to the advancement of the freedmen, but they would go in separate directions.  William became a superintendent of schools for the Freedmen’s Bureau and ultimately President of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania school board.  Lucie had to overcome the Victorian-era stigma of being a single mother (you can read about her trials and tribulations here), but she eventually fulfilled a long-term ambition “to go South to teach”, teaching black children in Georgia and Mississippi.  After finalization of the divorce, she remarried, and under the name of Lucie Stanton Sessions was an active officer of the Women’s Relief Corps and a local temperance society. [19]

Lucie Stanton Sessions in her later years
Lucie Stanton Sessions in her later years

Although the boundless, youthful optimism of their Oberlin days may have been tempered, both Lucie and William continued to “struggle on” and dedicated their lives to the cause of “universal freedom.”

Sources consulted:

Todd Mealy, Aliened American: A Biography of William Howard Day: 1825 to 1865, Volume 1

Stephen Middleton, The Black Laws: Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio

Frank Uriah Quillin, The Color Line in Ohio: A History of Race Prejudice in a Typical Northern State

Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection; State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio, “Minutes and Address of the State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio, Convened at Columbus, January 10th, 11th, 12th, & 13th, 1849”

State Convention of Colored Men, “Address to the Constitutional convention of Ohio / from the State convention of colored men, held in the city of Columbus, Jan. 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th, 1851”

Ellen NicKenzie Lawson with Marlene D. Merrill, The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women

“Meeting of Colored Citizens”, The Liberator, March 2, 1849, Vol XIX, No. 9, Page 1

The Oberlin Evangelist (see footnotes for specific issues)

C. Peter Ripley, et al, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume IV, The United States, 1847-1858

C. Peter Ripley, et al, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume II, Canada, 1830-1865

William Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

William M. Mitchell, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom

Victor Ullman, Look to the North Star; a life of William King

“Ohio Constitution of 1803 (Transcript)”, Ohio History Central

James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom

Oberlin Heritage Center; Harlow Pease, “Harlow Pease (1828-1910)”

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

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

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

 

Footnotes:

[1] Mealy, pp. 47-50
[2] Mealy, pp. 120-121; Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1844
[3] Mealy, pp. 121-126
[4] Lawson, pp. 190-191
[5] “Catalogue and Record”; Oberlin Evangelist, Oct. 13, 1847
[6] Mealy, pp. 134, 146; Oberlin Heritage Center
[7] “Meeting of Colored Citizens”
[8] Samuel J. May Anti-slavery collection
[9] Quillin, pp. 39-40
[10] Lawson, pp. 192-193; Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1850
[11] Oberlin Evangelist, Dec 17, 1850
[12] Mealy, pp. 169-172; “Ohio Constitution”
[13] Ripley, Vol. IV,  p. 225; Cheek, p. 153
[14] “Address to the Constitutional convention”
[15] Ripley, Vol. IV, pp. 215, 150; Lawson, pp. 196-197
[16] McPherson, p. 119; Ripley, Vol. IV, p. 75; Mealy, pp. 238-243
[17] Mealy, pp. 268, 277
[18] Mitchell, pp. 171-172; Mealy, p. 316
[19] Lawson, pp. 198-201

“Odious business” in Oberlin: Northern States’ Rights, Part 3

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

“An act to prevent slaveholding and kidnapping in Ohio”REPEALED!

“An act to prohibit the confinement of fugitives from slavery in the jails of Ohio”REPEALED!

Monroe’s 1856 Habeas Corpus ActREPEALED!

In early 1858 the newly elected Democratic Ohio General Assembly wasted no time attacking Ohio’s personal liberty laws, which had been passed by the prior Republican legislature to counteract the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.  (See my Northern States’ Rights, Part 1 and Part 2 blog posts).  Between February and April they repealed the three laws listed above.  They also attempted to repeal a fourth law, “An act to prevent kidnapping”, but were unsuccessful at that, making it the only Ohio personal liberty law left standing. [1]

Although this might sound like a massive backlash on the part of the Ohio electorate, it might not have been quite as dramatic as it appears.  Ohio had a long history of flip-flopping between anti-slavery and anti-black legislatures from one election to the next.  Ohio historian William Cochran also attributed it to voter “apathy” in an off-year election, and to the Republicans “pat[ting] themselves on the back and go[ing] to sleep.”   But it’s also clear that the Democrats made a campaign issue of Republican policies, including the personal liberty laws, and it’s reasonable to assume that at least some conservative Ohioans were energized to vote Democratic by their apprehensions over the “radical” anti-slavery policies of the Republican legislature. [2]

One thing was certain though, the repeal of the personal liberty laws by the Democratic legislature opened up Ohio as a potential hunting ground for slavecatchers.   Oberlin, in particular, was vulnerable, both because it was widely known to be a haven for people seeking freedom from slavery, and also because one of Oberlin’s few pro-slavery residents, Anson P. Dayton, had just been appointed U.S. Deputy Marshal by the pro-slavery administration of President James Buchanan. [3]

The years prior to 1858 had been very quiet in northeast Ohio in terms of slavehunting activities.  The Cleveland Leader noted that “during the whole of President Pierce’s and the half of Mr. Buchanan’s Administration no efforts were made in these parts, in a business so odious to the people.”   But that would change now.  According to John Mercer Langston, who was Town Clerk at the time, in the Spring of 1858 “alarm was created by the presence of negro-catchers from Kentucky and other neighboring Southern States, who were prowling in stealth and disguise about this holy place in search of their fleeing property.”   In mid August, an attempt was made to capture the Wagoner family, and on August 20, Marshal Dayton and 3 cohorts attempted unsuccessfully to seize an African American woman and her children.  The attempt was repeated three nights later.  But Oberlin demonstrated that it could hold its own even without the support of state law, as all of these attempts were thwarted by a vigilant community.  In one case, James Smith, on hearing that Marshal Dayton was conspiring with slaveholders in North Carolina to capture him, chased the Marshal into the Palmer House (at the site of the present day Oberlin Inn) and struck him with a cane. [4]

In September, another Oberlin resident noted that “it was also universal town talk that there were several Southerners at [Chauncey] Wack’s tavern, whose business it was supposed to be to seize and carry off some of the citizens of the place.” [5]   And indeed one of those Southerners would conspire with a U.S. Marshal and two other men to abduct John Price, an alleged fugitive slave living in Oberlin.  The abduction and rescue of Price is a much publicized event known as the “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue”, so I won’t go into details here, but I thought it might be interesting to examine how the Rescue related to Ohio’s personal liberty laws.  (For details about the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, see The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue 1858)

As we shall see, Monroe’s Habeas Corpus Act might have been written for just such an event as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, and it’s interesting to note that the Republican Governor and the Republican state supreme court proceeded as if that law had never been repealed!  They defied the Buchanan Administration in Washington D.C. and the slaveholder dominated United States Supreme Court, and opened the door for a potential armed confrontation between the state and federal governments that could have dwarfed the “Battle of Lumbarton“, fought  two years earlier.

After dozens of Oberlin and Wellington men were arrested by the federal government for rescuing John Price from his captors, the Ohio Supreme Court issued writs of habeas corpus to bring two of the rescuers before it to determine for itself whether the federal government had a right to imprison them.  According to historian Thomas D. Morris in his acclaimed study of the personal liberty laws of the North, this was in direct defiance of the United States Supreme Court, which had just weeks earlier, in another Fugitive Slave Law case, ruled that a state court had no authority to interfere with, or even question, a detention once it learned that the prisoners were held under authority of the federal government (Abelman v. Booth).  In addition, the writs weren’t directed to the federal law enforcement officers who had arrested the rescuers (and who likely would have ignored the writs); instead they were directed to the Cuyahoga County Sheriff, who had jurisdiction over the jail the rescuers were being held in.   This is exactly what would have happened under the Monroe law.  The Buchanan Administration angrily protested that “the State Court have no authority to meddle with this business.”  But the Sheriff, who was sympathetic to the rescuers, voluntarily complied with the writs.  (He would have been required to under the Monroe law.)  This left the federal law enforcement agents with no choice but to accompany the Sheriff and their prisoners to the state court in Columbus.  However, they were under strict orders from the Buchanan Administration that the rescuers “must under no circumstances be surrendered”, even if the Ohio Supreme Court ordered them released. [6]

While all this was going on, Ohio Governor Salmon Chase was publicly telling a large crowd in Cleveland that he would go along with whatever the Ohio Supreme Court decided, and that if they decided the rescuers should be set free, then “so long as Ohio was a Sovereign State, that process should be executed.” [7]  Chase, of course, knew that the federal law enforcement officers would never free the rescuers voluntarily, and thus it would appear he was prepared to use force to free them, as would have been authorized by the terms of Monroe’s repealed law.  As it turns out though it was all a moot point, since the Ohio Supreme Court decided by a 3 to 2 margin that the imprisonment of the rescuers was indeed authorized by the U.S. Constitution (in spite of the judges’ own personal feelings).   Thus another armed confrontation between the federal government and the state of Ohio was avoided, but it was nonetheless a disheartening verdict for the rescuers and a sad day for Oberlin.

But all was not yet lost.  There was still one arrow left in the quiver.  Ohio still had one lonely personal liberty law left on the books, the 1857 “act to prevent kidnapping”.  If you recall from Part 1 of this series, that law mandated a minimum sentence of three years hard labor in the state penitentiary for anyone who should “forcibly or fraudulently carry off or decoy out of this state any black or mulatto person… 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.”  In February, 1859, a Lorain County Grand Jury issued an indictment under that law against the four men (including the U.S. Marshal) who had captured John Price.  Since these men were frequently coming to northeast Ohio to testify against the rescuers at their trials, it set up an interesting cat-and-mouse game where Lorain County Sheriff Harmon Burr (an Oberlin College alumnus) tried to arrest the slavecatchers, while the federal government tried to protect the slavecatchers so they could testify against the rescuers.  This led the anti-Oberlin Cleveland Plain Dealer to scoff, “Oberlin has now taken up and become the champion of the Southern doctrine of ‘State Rights’.”  [8]

Sheriff Harmon E Burr
Lorain County Sheriff Harmon Burr
(from Lorain County Sheriff’s Office)

Ultimately Sheriff Burr did succeed in arresting the slavecatchers and in convincing them that an angry Lorain County jury would almost certainly convict them at their trial, which was scheduled to begin in July.  The slavecatchers wanted no part of a three to eight year sentence of hard labor in the notorious Ohio State Penitentiary, so they accepted a deal where the county would drop the charges against them if they persuaded the federal government to drop the charges against the rescuers.  Since the testimony of the slavecatchers was essential to the case against the rescuers, the federal government had no choice but to comply with their request.  And so it was that the most conservative of  Ohio’s personal liberty laws ultimately led to the liberty of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers.  News of Oberlin’s triumph spread nationwide and even overseas, with the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican exulting, “So ends the famous rescue cases and it may be safely set down as a fixed fact that they are the last of the sort in Ohio.  The persecution of Christian men for showing kindness to runaway negroes is a losing operation socially and politically.” [9]

Out of Jail poster
Poster announcing celebration for Rescuers
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

And it was indeed a “losing operation” for the Democrats, as the Republicans regained control of the Ohio General Assembly in the elections of 1859.  Voter disgust at the Fugitive Slave Law and the treatment of the rescuers by the federal government was a contributing factor to yet another electoral flip-flop.  Beginning their new term in early 1860, James Monroe and other “radical” Republicans now looked to try and reinstate the repealed personal liberty laws.  But the situation was different than it had been the last time the Republicans were in control.  Now the Republicans were looking towards the Presidential election of 1860 and the very real possibility of a first-time ever Republican victory placing an anti-slavery President in the White House – IF they played their cards right.  And that meant playing no cards that would lead the public to perceive them as being too radical.   This was especially true after John Brown’s raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October, 1859.  Republicans wanted to distance themselves from radical and violent abolitionism as much as possible. As a result, the Republican Ohio General Assembly passed no personal liberty laws*, and other northern states refrained from radical legislation as well. [10]

The strategy paid off, and Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected to the Presidency in November.  But almost immediately after his election, slaveholding states started seceding from the Union.  Despite the fact that Republicans had shown restraint in passing new personal liberty laws, the seceding states included the personal liberty laws in a list of grievances justifying their secession.   Texas, in its “Declaration of the Causes” of secession, claimed the following:

“[Texas] was received [into the federal Union] as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time… But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them? …
 
The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the [fugitive slave clause] of the federal constitution, and laws passed in pursuance thereof; thereby annulling a material provision of the compact, designed by its framers to perpetuate the amity between the members of the confederacy and to secure the rights of the slave-holding States in their domestic institutions– a provision founded in justice and wisdom, and without the enforcement of which the compact fails to accomplish the object of its creation. Some of those States have imposed high fines and degrading penalties upon any of their citizens or officers who may carry out in good faith that provision of the compact, or the federal laws enacted in accordance therewith.
 
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery…” [11]

The secession of the slaveholding states ultimately led to civil war, and civil war moved the Fugitive Slave Law controversy to a new forum and its combatants to new battlefields.  But finally, in 1864, the United States Congress repealed the notorious Fugitive Slave Law.  The next year the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery nationwide.  And two months after that, the Ohio General Assembly finally retired its lone surviving personal liberty law, “An Act to prevent kidnapping” – the law that had brought to Oberlin one of the  greatest triumphs and most joyous celebrations of its rich and colorful history.

 
* Historians have traditionally taken the stance that this General Assembly passed no new personal liberty laws. Since I wrote this, however, I’ve discovered that the Republicans discreetly passed what amounted to a low-key personal liberty law in 1860. This law would have an impact on the infamous Lucy Bagby case of 1861, and will be discussed in detail in a future blog. – Ron Gorman, Nov. 19, 2016

 
SOURCES CONSULTED:

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

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

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

“A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union”, Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, University of Tennessee

John Mercer Langston, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol

William Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

Jacob Rudd Shipherd, History of the Oberlin Wellington Rescue

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

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday Lectures, Addresses, and Essays

Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity

Acts of the State of Ohio, Volume 63

The public statutes at large, of the state of Ohio [1833-1861], Volume 4

“Harmon E. Burr”, Whiteside County Biographies

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

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

 
FOOTNOTES:

[1] Public, Vol 4, pp. 3028, 3036; Cochran, p. 118
[2] Cochran, p. 118; Monroe, Speech, pp. 3, 4, 13
[3] Cheek, p. 316
[4] Cochran, pp. 119, 121; Fletcher, Chapter  XXVI; Langston, p. 183
[5] Shipherd, p. 32
[6] Morris, p. 187; Finkelman, p. 178; Brandt, p. 202
[7] Cochran, p. 186
[8] Cochran, pp. 197-198; Brandt, pp. 172-173; General Catalogue, p. 336; “Harmon”
[9] Cochran, p. 201
[10] Cochran, pp. 209-210; Monroe, Thursday, p. 121; Morris, pp. 188-190, 219-222
[11] “A Declaration”