Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Reading Journal: "The Town That Started the Civil War"
Nat Brandt, The Town That Started the Civil War (Dell 1990).
This September marks the 150th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. In September 1858, slave hunters from Kentucky arrived in Oberlin, Ohio, to capture fugitive slave John Price. After apprehending Price in Oberlin, the kidnappers took him to nearby Wellington to catch a southbound train. News of the kidnapping spread quickly in Oberlin, and a large group of men, including black citizens of the town and Oberlin students, headed to Wellington to rescue Price. Oberlin had a reputation for abolitionism and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, and its citizens boasted that no black man had ever been returned to slavery from Oberlin. After a tense stand-off in Wellington, Oberlin made good on its boast and took Price from his captors and spirited him away into hiding—and eventually to freedom in Canada.
The trial of the Rescuers that followed pitted Oberlin—and its antislavery Republican allies in Ohio—against the Democratic, pro-slavery Buchanan administration in Washington. As the trial progressed, it attracted publicity to the cause of overturning the Fugitive Slave Law and the larger cause of abolishing slavery. One result of the trial was the addition of a "plank" condemning the Fugitive Slave Law to the Ohio Republican platform in 1860, something that contributed substantially to Lincoln's landslide victory in Ohio in that year's election. The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue galvanized support for abolition in Ohio, and in doing so pushed the nation closer to the Civil War.
Brandt's book is astonishingly detailed and well-documented, and does an excellent job of bringing out the individual personalities, the legal maneuvering, and the larger issues involved.