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higher law, slavery, civil disobedience, fugitive slave act

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Constitutional Law | Courts | Criminal Law | Law | Legal History


This article tells the story of the Oberlin fugitive slave rescue and the ensuing prosecutions in federal court. The trial of rescuer Charles Langston marked one of the first times that adherence to "higher law" was explicitly raised as a legal defense in an American courtroom. The article is adapted from my book -- Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial -- which tells this story (and several others) in much more detail.

In the fall of 1859, John Price was a fugitive slave living in the abolitionist community of Oberlin, Ohio. He was lured out of town and captured by Kentucky slavehunters, but he was able to raise an alarm. Hundreds of Oberliners -- including many students and graduates from the eponymous college -- came to his rescue. They chased the slavehunters to nearby Wellington, where they freed John Price by force.

The pro-slavery Buchanan administration could not ignore such a blatant violation of the Fugitive Slave Act, and therefore indicted thirty seven rescuers. Two of the defendants were brought to trial the following spring in Cleveland. Charles Langston -- a free black man and the son of a Virginia plantation owner -- was one of the most important African-American leaders in Ohio. Although convicted, he defied the court by announcing at sentencing that he would continue to violate the Fugitive Slave Act in defense of every fugitive's God given rights.

Langston's attorney also proclaimed himself a "votary of the higher law," thus setting the stage for a stark confrontation between legality and morality.