Although it draws little fanfare, this time of year marks the anniversary of a dramatic Supreme Court case that tested the conscience of a judge and captured the attention of the nation. It unfolded in May 1859 in the aftermath of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, and foretold of the coming pain of the Civil War.
This is a story worth recalling because of the individuals involved and the issues they faced. The central characters included John Price, a fugitive slave from Kentucky, two abolitionists who defied federal law and Judge Joseph Swan, revered both by the public and colleagues, who ultimately cast the deciding vote.
When Price crossed the river into Ohio in 1856, he made his way to Oberlin, long considered a safe haven for runaway slaves. Still, runaways always remained on the lookout. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 allowed bounty hunters to capture slaves anywhere in the United States and return them to their captors in the South. The law also called for the arrest of those who interfered with a slave capture and required federal marshals to assist in rounding up runaways.
Price enjoyed freedom for almost two years in Oberlin before he was taken by two Southern slave catchers and a federal marshal. Price was held prisoner in a hotel room in nearby Wellington. Word of his abduction quickly spread through the communities and a crowd of more than 350 white and black abolitionists gathered outside the hotel calling for his release. In the tense atmosphere, fueled by chaos, Price escaped and was taken to a safe house to hide. He eventually found true freedom in Canada.
In the wake of the incident 37 abolitionists were arrested and charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act. Simeon Bushnell and Charles Langston were the first to be tried in federal court in Cleveland. Both men were found guilty.
Lawyers for the two men filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court of Ohio. They argued Bushnell and Langston were imprisoned illegally because the fugitive slave law was unconstitutional. In essence, they asked a state court to take extraordinary action and strike down a federal law.
On the morning of May 25, the Supreme Court justices convened their hearing. The rescuers pressed the point that the moment escaped slaves stepped into Ohio, they were free men and women because Ohio did not recognize slavery. Attorneys for the government argued the Fugitive Slave Act was the law of the land that had been upheld by other courts.
Following the hearing, the justices voted: two to uphold the federal conviction and two to release the rescuers, Bushnell and Langston. The decision was up to Chief Judge Swan, widely recognized as a committed abolitionist. The case presented him with a wrenching choice: follow his heart as an opponent of slavery or follow the law he was sworn to uphold.
It was a personal dilemma that he answered in a most personal style in his majority opinion: “If I did it, and were prosecuted , condemned, and imprisoned…and were then permitted to pronounce judgment in my own case, I trust I should have the moral courage to say, before God and the country, as I am now compelled to say, under the solemn duties of a judge, bound by my official oath to sustain the supremacy of the constitution and the law, ‘The prisoner must be remanded.’”
With his vote, Swan refused to overturn the federal law. As a result, the Oberlin rescuers spent almost 90 days in jail. He paid a steep price for his decision. He was denied renomination to the court and he resigned in November.