Should Colored Men be Subject to the Pains and Penalties of the Fugitive Slave Law?
An 1859 speech by African American antislavery activist Charles Langston prior to court sentencing. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Charles Henry Langston (1817-1892) was an African American abolitionist, educator, and political figure in Ohio and Kansas. He was the older brother of the better-known abolitionist, attorney, and Congressional representative John Mercer Langston. The Langston brothers established the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society together. See William Francis Cheek and Aimee Lee, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989). Charles Langston was also the step-grandfather of his namesake, the poet Langston Hughes.
Langston gave this speech at the conclusion of the Oberlin-Wellington rescue trial. This trial was the outcome of the 1858 rescue of fugitive slave John Price from a United States marshal acting under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. A mixed crowd of whites and blacks freed Price from custody and spirited him north to Canada. For an account of this event and its legal consequences, see Jacob R. Shipherd (comp.), History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972; original edition, 1859); for Langston’s speech, see Shiperd 175-178. The Oberlin-Wellington rescue, which received national attention, was one of the precipitating events that signaled the growing political and legal strength of the antislavery movement in Ohio. See Lockard, Watching Slavery: Witness Texts and Travel Reports (New York: Peter Lang, 2008) 124-126.
Of 37 federal indictments against participants in the rescue, only Langston and Simeon Bushnell, a white man, were brought to trial. Their trials were one of several legal contests during this period in western states over the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law. In the present case, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the law was constitutional and the state was bound by the US Constitution’s supremacy clause to enforce it. See Ex parte Simeon Bushnell. Ex parte Charles Langston et al. 8 Ohio St. 599; 9 Ohio St. 77.
This speech by Langston is today remembered as one of the high points of antebellum African American rhetoric. Legal scholar Steven Lubet writes “Charles Langston spoke in his own behalf with clarity of purpose unencumbered by considerations of courtroom strategy or legal tactics. It turned out that he—more than any of his able and dedicated counsel—was the truest, most effective votary of the higher law, and an enduring model for the role of civil disobedience in American courts.” Lubet, “Slavery on Trial: The Case of the Oberlin Rescue,” 54 Ala. L. Rev. 785, at 829. Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s inclusion of this speech in her 1914 collection of African American speeches, Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence, highlights its persistence in cultural memory.
Langston begins with a clear statement of what all-white courts were not willing to acknowledge but was evident to black defendants facing them: “I know that the courts of this country, that the governmental machinery of this country are so constituted as to oppress and outrage colored men.” (51) To voice a clear-eyed appeal and limit expectations, Langston suggests, a black defendant needed to understand the historic injustices that US courts had inflicted against blacks. Explaining his motive of action, Langston employs a patriotic theme, citing his father’s participation in the American Revolution and a belief in its principle that “all men have a right to life and liberty.” (53) There is nothing he did, he says, that any man should not do as a citizen who perceives injustice executed by illegitimate authority. Langston makes a distinction between the Fugitive Slave Law as an unjust one “that outrages every feeling of humanity, as well as every rule of Right” (55) and claims for the constitutionality of the law. He states that he would obey such an “inhuman law’ no more than American revolutionaries obeyed “the odious and absurd doctrine that kings and tyrants reign and rule by divine right.” (55)
Langston next takes aim at his trial by an all-white jury, arguing that white racial prejudices combined with exclusion of blacks from jury boxes denies fair trial to black defendants. (56-57) He invokes the Dred Scott decision’s declaration that blacks in the United States have no rights “which white men are bound to respect” as a reason for his action to liberate a slave, for if white men were not bound to respect the right of human liberty than it was incumbent on him to do so. (58) Langston argues that a man who could watch another wronged without assisting him “must have lost all the manly feelings of his nature.” (61)
The judge imposed a sentence of a $100 fine and costs, together with twenty days imprisonment.
Source: Alice Dunbar-Nelson [ed.], Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence (New York: Bookery Publishing Co., 1914) 49-62.
- Joe Lockard