The Oberlin–Wellington Rescue of 1858 in Lorain County, Ohio was a key event and cause celèbre in the history of the abolitionist movement in the United States shortly before the American Civil War. John Price, an escaped slave, was arrested in Oberlin, Ohio under the Fugitive Slave Law, and taken to Wellington by the US Marshal. Rescuers took him by force from the marshals and back to Oberlin, then to freedom in Canada.
Thirty-seven of the rescuers were at first indicted, but as a result of state and federal negotiations, only two were tried in federal court. The case received national attention, and defendants argued eloquently against the law. When rescue allies went to the 1859 Ohio Republican convention, they added a repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to the party platform. The rescue and continued activism of its participants kept the issue of slavery as part of the national discussion.
On September 13, 1858, a runaway slave named John Price, from Maysville, Kentucky, was arrested by a United States marshal in Oberlin, Ohio. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the federal government assisted slaveholders in reclaiming their runaway slaves. The marshal knew that many Oberlin residents were committed to abolitionism, and the town and college were known for their radical anti-slavery stance. To avoid conflict with locals and to quickly get the slave to Columbus and en route to the slave's owner in Kentucky, the marshal quickly took Price to nearby Wellington, Ohio to board a train.
As soon as residents heard of the marshal's actions, a group of men rushed to Wellington. They joined like-minded residents of Wellington and attempted to free Price, but the marshal and his deputies took refuge in a local hotel. After peaceful negotiations failed, the rescuers stormed the hotel and found Price in the attic. The group immediately returned Price to Oberlin, where they hid him in the home of James Harris Fairchild, a future president of Oberlin College. A short time later, they took Price to Canada. Under British rule, Canada had no slavery and Price did not have to worry about US authorities there. It is not known what happened to Price after he arrived in Canada.
A federal grand jury brought indictments against 37 of those who freed Price. Twelve of the rescuers indicted were free blacks, among them Charles Henry Langston, who had helped ensure that Price was taken to Canada rather than released to the authorities. Charles and his brother John Mercer Langston were both Oberlin College graduates, and led the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1858. They both were politically active all their lives, Charles in Kansas and John taking leadership roles in state and national politics, in 1888 becoming the first African-American to be elected to the US Congress from Virginia.
Feelings had run high in Ohio in the aftermath of Price's rescue. When the federal jury issued its indictments, state authorities arrested the federal marshal, his deputies, and other men involved in John Price's detention. After negotiations, state officials agreed to release the arresting officials, while federal officials agreed to release 35 of the men indicted.
Simeon M. Bushnell, a white man, and Charles H. Langston were the only two men to go to trial. Four prominent local attorneys – Franklin Thomas Backus, Rufus P. Spalding, Albert G. Riddle, and Seneca O. Griswold – acted for the defense. The jurors were all known Democrats. After they convicted Bushnell, the same jury was called to try Langston, despite his protests that they could not be impartial.
Langston gave a speech in court that was a rousing statement of the case for abolition and for justice for colored men. He closed with these words:
But I stand up here to say, that if for doing what I did on that day at Wellington, I am to go to jail six months, and pay a fine of a thousand dollars, according to the Fugitive Slave Law, and such is the protection the laws of this country afford me, I must take upon my self the responsibility of self-protection; and when I come to be claimed by some perjured wretch as his slave, I shall never be taken into slavery. And as in that trying hour I would have others do to me, as I would call upon my friends to help me; as I would call upon you, your Honor, to help me; as I would call upon you [to the District-Attorney], to help me; and upon you [to Judge Bliss], and upon you [to his counsel], so help me GOD! I stand here to say that I will do all I can, for any man thus seized and help, though the inevitable penalty of six months imprisonment and one thousand dollars fine for each offense hangs over me! We have a common humanity. You would do so; your manhood would require it; and no matter what the laws might me, you would honor yourself for doing it; your friends would honor you for doing it; your children to all generations would honor you for doing it; and every good and honest man would say, you had done right!— Great and prolonged applause, in spite of the efforts of the Court and the Marshal to silence it.
The jury also convicted Langston. The judge gave light sentences, assigning Bushnell to 60 days in jail and Langston to 20 days.
Bushnell and Langston filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Ohio Supreme Court, claiming that the federal court did not have the authority to arrest and try them because the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was unconstitutional. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law by a three-to-two ruling. Although Chief Justice Joseph Rockwell Swan was personally opposed to slavery, he wrote that his judicial duty left him no choice but to acknowledge that an Act of the United States Congress was the supreme law of the land (see Supremacy Clause), and to uphold it.
Members of Ohio's abolitionist community were incensed. More than 10,000 people participated in a Cleveland rally to oppose the federal and state courts' decisions. Appearing with Republican leaders such as Gov. Salmon P. Chase and Joshua Giddings, John Mercer Langston was the sole black speaker that day. Because of his decision, Chief Justice Swan failed to win reelection and his political career was ruined in Ohio.
In time, regional tensions over slavery, constitutional interpretation, and other factors led to the outbreak of the Civil War. The Oberlin-Wellington rescue is considered important as it not only attracted widespread national attention but occurred in a region of Ohio known for its Underground Railroad activity. Those who participated in the rescue and their allies continued to be active in Ohio and national politics. In 1859 those who attended the Ohio Republican convention succeeded in adding a repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to the party platform. The rescue and continued actions of its participants brought the issue of slavery into national discussion.
Two participants in the Oberlin–Wellington Rescue — Lewis Sheridan Leary and John A. Copeland, along with Oberlin resident Shields Green — went on to join John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. Leary was killed during the attack. Copeland and Green were captured and tried along with John Brown. They were convicted of treason and executed on December 16, 1859, two weeks after Brown).
- Matt Lautzenheiser, "Book Review: Ronald M. Baumann, 'The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal' ", Northern Ohio Journal of History, accessed Dec 15, 2008
- William and Aimee Cheek, "John Mercer Langston: Principle and Politics", in Leon F. Litwack and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1991, pp. 106–111
- "Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case", Ohio History Central, 2008, accessed Dec 15, 2008
- "Charles Langston's Speech in the Cuyahoga County Courthouse, May 1859", Oberlin College, accessed Dec 15, 2008
- Oberlin Heritage Center
- "An Account of the Trials of Simeon Bushnell and Charles Langston", by the Oberlin–Wellington Rescuers, 1859, Oberlin College
- "Charles Langston's Speech at the Cuyahoga County Courthouse, May 12, 1859", Oberlin College