02 Nov The Fight With Slavery
The Fight With Slavery by William Dean Howells
The Fight With Slavery
Almost from the beginning Ohio was called the Yankee state by her Southern neighbors. Burr had found her people too plodding for him, as he said, and it would not have been strange if the older slave-holding communities on her southern and eastern border had seen with distrust and dislike the advance of the young free state, and had given her that nickname partly out of envy and partly out of contempt. Their citizens were high-spirited and generous, but they had not the public spirit which New England had imparted to Ohio, for public spirit comes from equality and from the feeling for others’ rights, and the very supremacy which the slaveholders enjoyed was fatal to this feeling. Virginia and Kentucky were rich in independent character, but public spirit is better than this, for it cares for the independence of all through the self-sacrifice of each. That was the secret which Ohio early learned from New England, and which kept her safe from slavery when it pressed so hard upon her in the friendship as well as the enmity of her neighbors.
We know that the Northwestern Territory was devoted to freedom by the law that created it, but we have seen that slavery was kept out of Ohio by one vote only when her first constitution was adopted; and for a very long time there was a very large party favorable to slavery in our state. It will seem strange to many of my readers that Ohio people of color were once not only not allowed to vote, but were not allowed to give testimony in the courts of law. They were treated in this like the Southern slaves, and in fact there was really a sort of slaveholding in Ohio, in spite of the law. In the river counties many farmers hired slaves from their masters in Virginia and Kentucky; and when the Southerners traveled through Ohio, they brought their slaves into the state with them, and took them out again. But when the conscience of the Northern people began to stir against slavery, the Ohio abolitionists coaxed away the slaves of these Southern travelers and sojourners, and this, with the constant escape of runaway slaves by their help, infuriated the friends of slavery inside as well as outside of the state. The abolitionists had what they called the Underground Railroad, with stations at their houses in town and country, and they sped the fugitives from one to another till they reached Canada. Their enemies accused them of tempting slaves across the Ohio, in order to give them their freedom, and in a little while the rage against them broke out in mobs and riots.
It would not be easy to trace here the course of events which led to these outbreaks. It is no doubt true that the abolitionists were often rash, if not reckless, and that when they were maddened by the coldness or the hostility of the people to the cause of human freedom they did not stop at some acts which, though they were righteous enough, were unlawful. It was unlawful to harbor runaway slaves, but they did it gladly, and they appealed to the passions as well as the consciences of men in their hate of the sum of all villainies, as John Wesley called slavery. They not only met their foes half way, they carried the war into the hearts and homes of the enemy. From time to time wicked and sorrowful things happened to fret their fanaticism and keep it at a white heat. Peaceable negroes were attacked in their homes by ruffianly whites, their cattle killed, their fields wasted; and sometimes they made a bloody resistance. They were not always harmless, and they were not always pleasant neighbors. Slavery was a bad school, for the slaves as well as the masters; and the negroes, when not vicious and dishonest, were degraded and ignorant, for the public schools were shut against them, and they could not read, any more than they could vote or bear witness. So it is not strange that they should have been hunted and harried everywhere in Southern Ohio.
In Pike County a whole neighborhood was invaded, and several lives were lost before one of these foolish and wicked persecutions ended. This incident, which was one of many more or less violent, occurred in 1830, and two years later something still more tragical happened. A negro calling himself Thomas Marshall, who had lived several years at Dayton, was caught up in the streets of that town by some men who, when his cries brought the citizens to his help, declared that he was a runaway slave. They took him before a magistrate, and proved their charge; but one of the slavecatchers held out the hope that his master would sell him. The poor slave gave fifty dollars himself toward his freedom, and his ransom was well made up when word came from his owner in Kentucky that he would not part with him for any sum. His captors then took Marshall to Cincinnati, where he was lodged for safe keeping over night in the fourth story of a hotel. When his guards fell asleep, the slave rose and threw himself out of the window to the ground fifty feet below. He was taken up fatally hurt, and he died at dawn.
The anti-slavery meetings were often broken in upon by mobs and sometimes broken up. One of these riots took place in 1834 at Granville, in Licking County, where the Ohio Anti-slavery Convention held its anniversary in a barn on the outskirts. The members were returning to the village in a procession when the mob met them, and at sight of the ladies among them shouted, “Egg the squaws!” and began to pelt them with eggs and other missiles, while some ran and tried to trip them up. Many of the men were beaten and egged, and the manes and tails of their horses were shaved. This was a favorite argument with the friends of slavery, and if shaving horses’ manes and tails could have availed, their party would easily have won.
Some of the anti-slavery speakers and lecturers came on missions from the Eastern States, but several of the fiercest and bravest were like the Rev. John Rankin, of Clermont County, who had emigrated from Tennessee to Ohio, because he would not live in a slaveholding community. He used to preach against slavery at frequent peril of his life, and his son tells how a mob leader once mounted to his pulpit, and threatened him with his club. “Stop speaking, or I will burst your head,” he shouted, but Rankin went quietly on as if nothing had been said, and one of his friends dragged the ruffian from his side. Of course, he was always coming home with his horse’s mane and tail shaved, and of course his house was a station on the underground railroad to freedom.
One of the boldest of the abolitionists was James G. Birney, who like Rankin had come to Ohio from the South. He started a newspaper called _The Philanthropist_ in Cincinnati, and for three months attacked slavery unsparingly in it. Then, on the 23d of July, 1836, the mob rose, broke into the printing office, threw the types into the street, tore down the press, and cast the fragments into the river. Then they assailed the black people living in one of the alleys, and shots were exchanged but no lives were lost. A few years later, however, in 1841, a general assault was made upon the negroes by the mob; several on both sides were killed and many wounded, and the office of _The Philanthropist_ was again destroyed. Of course these things did not stop the fight against slavery, and it did not help slavery at all when the authorities of Lane Theological Seminary at Cincinnati forbade the students to write or to talk about it. That was foolish and useless; it only hurt the seminary, and drove many students from it to the college at Oberlin, then newly founded in the woods of Lorain County. There they could not only discuss slavery, but they could learn about it at first hand from the negro students. The founders of Oberlin were not abolitionists, but it is related that when they took Christ for their guide, they found that they could not shut out the friendless people whom the law kept from the schools, the polls, and the courts.
These few scattered facts will give some notion of the bitter feeling that prevailed during the first ten or twelve years of the fight against slavery in Ohio. Afterwards it became less intense, as slavery became a political question between the two great parties of that day, the Whigs and the Democrats. Neither party expected to abolish slavery, but the Whigs hoped to keep it out of the territories and all the new states. Both parties split upon this question at last, and in 1856 the anti-slavery Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats joined in forming the Republican party, which in 1860 elected Abraham Lincoln upon its promise to shut slavery up to the states where it already existed.
But it must not be supposed, because the first bitter feeling had passed away, that the facts were changed or that the tragedies and outrages had ceased. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, there was a new hunt for runaways all over the state, and business on the underground railroad was never so brisk. The hatred of slavery was revived in all its intensity by such cases as that of Margaret Gorden in 1856. This unhappy mother had escaped from Kentucky with her four children to the house of a free colored man below Mill Creek in Hamilton County, where they remained concealed with thirteen other fugitives. One night the place was suddenly attacked by the slavehunters under the lead of the United States officers. A fight followed, and several on both sides were wounded, but at last the slaves were overpowered. While the officers were dragging the others from the house, Margaret seized a knife from the table, and killed her little daughter rather than see it taken back to slavery, and then turned the bloody weapon against herself, but failed in the attempt on her own life. She was taken to Cincinnati and tried, not for murder, but for escaping from slavery, together with the other fugitives, who said they would “go singing to the gallows,” if only they need not go back to the South. They were all found guilty of seeking to be free, and were returned to their owners. On her way down the river it is said that Margaret jumped from the boat with one of her remaining little ones in her arms. The child was drowned, but Margaret was saved for the fate which she dreaded, and which she had twice risked her own and her children’s life to shun. What became of her at last was never known; it is only known that she was carried back to her owner. She had two deep scars on her black face. At her trial she was asked what made them, and she answered “White man struck me.”
In Champaign County, a fugitive slave named Ad White resisted the attempt of the slavehunters to take him, in 1857, and fired upon one of the United States marshals, whose life was saved by the negro’s bullet striking against the marshal’s gunbarrel. The people and their officers took the slave’s side, and the case was fought in and out of court. The sheriff of the county was brutally beaten with a slungshot by the marshal who had so narrowly escaped death himself, and never take a thousand dollars for him; the money was promptly raised and paid over, and White lived on unmolested.
As late as the summer of 1860 a fugitive slave was arrested near Iberia, in Morrow County. A party of young men caught one of the marshals and shaved his head, while others beat his comrades. Rev. Mr. Gordon, President of Ohio Central College, stood by trying to prevent the punishment, but he alone was arrested. He was sentenced to prison, where he lay till Lincoln pardoned him. The pardon did not recognize his innocence, and he would not leave his cell until his friends forced him to do so. By this time the damp jail air had infected him, and he died, shortly after, of consumption.
One would think that such things as these would have cured the Ohio people of all sentiment for slavery, for they had no real interest in it. But even in the second year of the Civil War, which the love of slavery had stirred up against the Union, the famous anti-slavery orator, Wendell Phillips, was stoned and egged while trying to lecture in Cincinnati. Before this time, however, events had gone so far that there was no staying them. One of the earliest and chiefest of these events was the attempt of John Brown to free the slaves in Virginia. He had already fought slavery in Kansas, where it was trying to invade free soil, and in 1859 he thought that the time had come to carry the war into the enemy’s country. He did this by placing himself with a small force of daring young men, several of his own sons among the rest, in the mountains near Harper’s Ferry. He hoped that when he had seized the United States Arsenal at that point, and given them arms the slaves would join him, and help to fight their way to the free states under his lead. But when they were attacked in the Arsenal, Brown and his men were easily overpowered by a detachment of Marines sent from Washington; several of his followers were killed; a few escaped; the rest suffered death with their leader on the gallows at Charlestown.
Some think that Brown was mad, some that he was inspired, some that he was right, some that he was wrong; but whatever men think of him, there are none who doubt that he was a hero, ready to shed his blood for the cause he held just. His name can never die, so long as the name of America lives, and it is part of the fame of Ohio that he dwelt many years in our state. For many years of his younger manhood Brown had lived at Hudson, in Summit County; for months before his attempt in Virginia he and his men were coming and going at different points in the Western Reserve, and in Ashtabula County where one of his sons then had a farm, he kept hidden the pikes with which he hoped to arm the slaves. One of the young men who died with him on the scaffold at Charlestown was the Quaker lad, Edwin Coppock, of Columbiana County, who wrote, two days before he suffered, a touching letter of farewell to his friends. “I had fondly hoped to live to see the principles of the Declaration of Independence fully realized; I had hoped to see the dark stain of slavery blotted from our land…. But two more short days remain to me to fulfill my earthly destiny. At the expiration of those days I shall stand upon the scaffold to take my last look of earthly scenes. But that scaffold has but little dread for me, for I honestly believe that I am innocent of any crime justifying such a punishment. But by the taking of my life and the lives of my comrades, Virginia is but hastening on the day when the slave will rejoice in his freedom.”