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Should Colored Men Be Subject To The Pains And Penalties Of The Fugitive Slave Law?


CHARLES H. LANGSTON, a native of Ohio, was the first to counsel
resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, and lost no opportunity
himself to disobey it. He was found guilty of violating the law in
rescuing John Price, an alleged fugitive from service in Kentucky.
This speech is his answer to the question of the judge why the
sentence should not be pronounced upon him. He was sentenced to one
hundred and twenty days' imprisonment, and fined $100.00 and costs,
amounting to $872.72.

[Note 5: Speech of Charles H. Langston before the United States
District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, May 12, 1859.
Delivered when about to be sentenced for rescuing a man from slavery.]

After a trial of twenty-three days in the United States District Court
for the Northern District of Ohio, Hiram V. Willson presiding, and at a
cost to the United States Government of more than two thousand dollars,
C. H. Langston was found guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Law, by
rescuing John Price, an alleged fugitive from service in Kentucky, from
the custody of one, Anderson Jennings, at Wellington, on the 13th day of
September, 1858.

Mr. Langston was sentenced to twenty days' imprisonment in the jail of
Cuyahoga county, and also to pay a fine of one hundred dollars and a
portion of the costs of prosecution, amounting to nine hundred and
seventy-two dollars and seventy cents.


Fine and bill of costs as copied from the Journal of the Court:

Fine $100.00
Clerk's fees 32.10
Marshal's fees 30.40
United States' witnesses 131.10
Docket fees 20.00
Total $972.70

On the morning of the 12th of May, 1859, C. H. Langston was brought into
court to receive his sentence.

The judge, having entered the "oyez, oyez" of the crier, announced the
opening of the court, and the rattling of the gavel of the bailiff soon
brought the immense crowd to silence. The business then proceeded as

THE COURT.--Mr. Langston, you will stand up, sir.

Mr. Langston arose.

THE COURT.--You have been tried, Mr. Langston, by a jury, and convicted
of a violation of the criminal laws of the United States. Have you or
your counsel anything to say why the sentence of the law should not be
pronounced upon you?

MR. LANGSTON.--I am for the first time in my life before a court of
justice, charged with the violation of law, and am now about to be
sentenced. But before receiving that sentence I propose to say one or
two words in regard to the mitigation of that sentence, if it may be so
construed. I can not, of course, and do not expect that what I may say
will in any way change your predetermined line of action. I ask no such
favor at your hands.

I know that the courts of this country, that the laws of this country,
that the governmental machinery of this country are so constituted as to
oppress and outrage colored men, men of my complexion. I cannot then, of
course, expect, judging from the past history of the country, any mercy
from the laws, from the Constitution, or from the courts of the country.

Some days prior to the 13th of September, 1858, happening to be in
Oberlin on a visit, I found the country round about there, and the
village itself, filled with alarming rumors as to the fact that
slave-catchers, kidnappers, and Negro stealers were lying hidden and
skulking about, awaiting some opportunity to get their bloody hands on
some helpless creature, to drag him back,--or for the first time,--into
helpless and lifelong bondage.

These reports becoming current all over that neighborhood, old men and
innocent women and children became exceedingly alarmed for their safety.
It was not uncommon to hear mothers say that they dare not send their
children to school, for fear that they would be caught up and carried
off by the way. Some of these people had become free by long and patient
toil at night, after working the long, long day for cruel masters, and
thus at length getting money enough to buy their liberty.

Others had become free by means of the good will of their masters. And
there were others who had become free--to their everlasting honor, I say
it--by the intensest exercise of their own God-given powers;--by
escaping from the plantations of their masters, eluding the
blood-thirsty patrols and sentinels so thickly scattered all along their
path, outrunning blood-hounds and horses, swimming rivers and fording
swamps, and reaching at last, through incredible difficulties, what
they, in their delusion, supposed to be free soil. These three classes
were in Oberlin, trembling alike for their safety because they well knew
their fate should these men-hunters get their hands on them.

In the midst of such excitement, the 13th day of September was ushered
in--a day ever memorable in the history of Oberlin, and I presume also,
in the history of this court. These men-hunters had, by lying devices,
decoyed into a place, where they could get their hands on him--I will
not say a slave, for I do not know that--but a man, a brother, who
had the right to his liberty under the laws of God, under the laws of
nature, and under the Declaration of American Independence.

In the midst of all this excitement the news came to us like a flash of
lightning that an actual seizure under and by means of fraudulent
pretenses, had been made! Being identified with that man by color, by
race, by manhood, by sympathies, such as God has implanted in us all, I
felt it my duty to go and do what I could towards liberating him. I had
been taught by my Revolutionary father--and I say this with all due
respect to him--and by his honored associates, that the fundamental
doctrine of this Government was, that all men have a right to life and
liberty, and coming from the Old Dominion I had brought into Ohio these
sentiments deeply impressed upon my heart. I went to Wellington, and
hearing from the parties themselves by what authority the boy was held
in custody, I conceived from what little knowledge I had of law that
they had no right to hold him. And as your Honor has repeatedly laid
down the law in this court, a man is free until he is proven to be
legally restrained of his liberty. I believed that upon that principle
of law those men were bound to take their prisoner before the very first
magistrate they found and there establish the facts set forth in their
warrant, and that until they did this every man should presume that
their claim was unfounded, and to institute such proceedings for the
purpose of securing an investigation as they might find warranted by the
laws of this State.

Now, sir, if that is not the plain common sense and correct view of the
law, then I have been misled, both by your Honor and by the prevalent
received opinion. It is said that they had a warrant. Why then, should
they not establish its validity before the proper officers? And I stand
here to-day, sir, to say that with an exception, of which I shall soon
speak, to procure such a lawful investigation of the authority under
which they claimed to act, was the part I took in that day's
proceedings, and the only part. I supposed it to be my duty as a
citizen of Ohio--excuse me for saying that, sir,--as an outlaw of the
United States, (much sensation) to do what I could to secure at least
this form of justice to my brother, whose liberty was at
peril.--Whatever more than that has been sworn to on this trial, as act
of mine, is false, ridiculously false. When I found these men refusing
to go, according to the law, as I apprehended it, and subject their
claim to an official inspection, and that nothing short of a habeas
corpus would oblige such an inspection, I was willing to go even thus
far, supposing in that county a sheriff might, perhaps, be found with
nerve enough to serve it. In this again, I failed. Nothing then was left
to me, nothing to the boy in custody, but the confirmation of my first
belief that the pretended authority was worthless, and the employment of
those means of liberation which belong to us. With regard to the part I
took in the forcible rescue, which followed, I have nothing to say,
further than I have already said. The evidence is before you. It is
alleged that I said "We will have him anyhow." This I NEVER said. I
did say to Mr. Lowe, what I honestly believe to be the truth, that the
crowd was very much excited, many of them averse to longer delay and
bent upon a rescue at all hazards; and that he being an old acquaintance
and friend of mine, I was anxious to extricate him from the dangerous
position he occupied, and therefore advised Jennings to give the boy up.
Further than this I did not say, either to him or to anyone else.

The law under which I am arraigned is an unjust one, one made to crush
the colored man, and one that outrages every feeling of humanity, as
well as every rule of Right.

With its constitutionality I have nothing to do; about that I know but
little and care much less. But suppose it is constitutional, what then?
To tell me a law is constitutional which robs me of my liberty is
simply ridiculous. I would curse the constitution that authorized the
enactment of such a law; I would trample the provisions of such a law
under my feet and defy its pains and penalties. I would respect and obey
such an inhuman law no more than OUR revolutionary fathers did the
odious and absurd doctrine that kings and tyrants reign and rule by
divine right. But it has often been said by learned and good men that
this law is unconstitutional. I remember the excitement that prevailed
throughout all the free States when it was passed; I remember, too, how
often it has been said by individuals, conventions, legislatures, and
even Judges that it is not only unconstitutional, but that it never
could be, never should be, and never was meant to be enforced. I had
always believed, until the contrary appeared in the actual institution
of proceedings, that the provisions of this odious statute would never
be enforced within the bounds of this State.

But I have another reason to offer why I should not be sentenced, and
one that I think pertinent to the case. The common law of England--and
you will excuse me for referring to that, since I am not a lawyer, but a
private man--was that every man should be tried by a jury of men
occupying the same political and legal status with himself. Lords
should be tried before a jury of lords; peers of the realm should be
tried before peers of the realm; vassals before vassals. And even "where
an alien was indicted, the jury shall be demenietate, or half
foreigners"; and a jury thus constituted were sworn "well and truly to
try and true deliverance make between the sovereign lord, the king, and
the prisoner whom they have in charge; and a true verdict to give
according to the evidence and without prejudice." The Constitution of
the United States guarantees--not merely to its citizens, but to all
persons--a trial before an impartial jury. I have had no such trial.

The colored man is oppressed by certain universal and deeply fixed
prejudices. Those jurors are well known to have shared largely in these
prejudices, and I therefore consider that they were neither impartial,
nor were they a jury of my peers. Politically and legally they are not
my equals. They have aided to form a State constitution which denies to
colored men citizenship, and under that constitution laws have been
enacted withholding from us many of our most valuable rights. These
unjust laws exclude colored men from the jury box and force us to be
tried in every case by jurors, not only filled with prejudices against
us, but far above us politically and legally, made so both by the
statute laws and by the Constitution. The prejudices which white people
have against colored men grow out of the fact that we have, as a people,
consented for two hundred years to be slaves of the whites. We have
been scourged, crushed, and cruelly oppressed, and have submitted to it
all tamely, meekly, peaceably; I mean, as a people, with rare individual
exceptions,--and to-day you see us thus meekly submitting to the
penalties of an infamous law. Now the Americans have this feeling, and
it is an honorable one, that they will respect those who rebel at
oppression, but despise those who tamely submit to outrage and wrong;
and while our people as a people submit, they will as a people be
despised. Why, they will hardly meet on terms of equality with us in a
whiskey shop, in a car, at a table, or even at the altar of God, so
thorough and hearty a contempt have they for those who lie still under
the heel of the oppressor. The jury came into the box with that feeling.
They knew that they had that feeling, and so the Court knows now, and
knew then. The gentlemen who prosecuted me, the Court itself, and even
the counsel who defended me, have that feeling.

I was tried by a jury which was prejudiced; before a Court that was
prejudiced; prosecuted by an officer who was prejudiced, and defended,
though ably, by counsel who were prejudiced. And therefore it is, your
Honor, that I urge by all that is good and great in manhood, that I
should not be subjected to the pains and penalties of this oppressive
law, when I have not been tried, either by a jury of my peers, according
to the principles of the common law, or by an impartial jury according
to the Constitution of the United States.

One more word, sir, and I have done. I went to Wellington, knowing that
colored men have no rights in the United States which white men are
bound to respect; that the Courts had so decided; that Congress had so
enacted; that the people had so decreed.

There is not a spot in this wide country, not even by the altars of God,
nor in the shadow of the shafts that tell the imperishable fame and
glory of the heroes of the Revolution; no, nor in the old Philadelphia
Hall, where any colored man may dare to ask mercy of a white man. Let me
stand in that Hall and tell a United States marshal that my father was a
Revolutionary soldier; that he served under Lafayette, and fought
through the whole war, and that he fought for my freedom as much as for
his own; and he would sneer at me, and clutch me with his bloody
fingers, and say he has a right to make me a slave! and when I appeal
to Congress, they say he has a right to make me a slave, and when I
appeal to your Honor, your Honor says he has a right to make me a
slave. And if any man, white or black, seeks an investigation of that
claim, he makes himself amenable to the pains and penalties of the
BOUND TO RESPECT. (Great applause.) I, going to Wellington with the full
knowledge of all this, knew that if that man was taken to Columbus he
was hopelessly gone, no matter whether he had ever been in slavery
before or not. I knew that I was in the same situation myself, and that
by the decision of your Honor, if any man whatever were to claim me as
his slave and seize me, and my brother, being a lawyer, should seek to
get out a writ of habeas corpus to expose the falsity of the claim, he
would be thrust into prison under one provision of the Fugitive Slave
Law, for interfering with the man claiming to be in pursuit of a
fugitive, and I, by the perjury of a solitary wretch, would by another
of its provisions be helplessly doomed to lifelong bondage, without the
possibility of escape.

Some may say that there is no danger of free persons being seized and
carried off as slaves. No one need labor under such a delusion. Sir,
four of the eight persons who were first carried back under the act of
1850 were afterwards proved to be free men. They were free persons,
but wholly at the mercy of the oath of one man. And but last Sabbath
afternoon a letter came to me from a gentleman in St. Louis informing me
that a young lady, who was formerly under my instructions at Columbus, a
free person, is now lying in jail at that place, claimed as the slave of
some wretch who never saw her before, and waiting for testimony of
relatives at Columbus to establish her freedom. I could stand here by
the hour and relate such instances. In the very nature of the case, they
must be constantly occurring. A letter was not long since found upon the
person of a counterfeiter, when arrested, addressed to him by some
Southern gentleman, in which the writer says:

"Go among the niggers, find out their marks and scars; make good
descriptions and send to me, and I'll find masters for 'em."

That is the way men are carried back to slavery.

But in view of all the facts, I say that, if ever again a man is seized
near me, and is about to be carried southward as a slave before any
legal investigation has been had, I shall hold it to be my duty, as I
held it that day, to secure for him, if possible, a legal inquiry into
the character of the claim by which he is held. And I go farther; I say
that if it is adjudged illegal to procure even such an investigation,
then we are thrown back upon those last defenses of our rights which
cannot be taken from us, and which God gave us that we need not be
slaves. I ask your Honor, while I say this, to place yourself in my
situation, and you will say with me that, if your brother, if your
friend, if your wife, if your child, had been seized by men who claimed
them as fugitives, and the law of the land forbade you to ask any
investigation, and precluded the possibility of any legal protection or
redress--then you will say with me that you would not only demand the
protection of the law, but you would call in your neighbors and your
friends, and would ask them to say with you, that, these, your friends,
could not be taken into slavery.

And now, I thank you for this leniency, this indulgence, in giving a man
unjustly condemned, by a tribunal before which he is declared to have no
rights, the privilege of speaking in his own behalf. I know that it will
do nothing toward mitigating your sentence, but it is a privilege to be
allowed to speak, and I thank you for it. I shall submit to the penalty,
be it what it may. But I stand up here to say that if for doing what I
did on that day at Wellington, I am to go to jail for six months, and
pay a fine of a thousand dollars, according to the Fugitive Slave Law,
and if such is the protection the laws of this country afford me, I must
take upon myself the responsibility of self-protection; when I come to
be claimed by some perjured wretch as his slave, I shall never be taken
into slavery. And in that trying hour, I would have others do to me, as
I would call upon my friends to help me; as I would call upon you, your
Honor, to help me, as I would call upon you (to the District Attorney)
to help me, and upon you (to Judge Bliss), and you (his counsel) so
help me God! I stand here to say that I will do all I can for any man
thus seized and held, though the inevitable penalty of six months'
imprisonment and one thousand dollars fine for each offense hang over
me! We have all a common humanity, and that humanity will, if rightly
exercised, compel us to aid each other when our rights are invaded. The
man who can see a fellow man wronged and outraged without assisting him
must have lost all the manly feelings of his nature. You would all
assist any man under such circumstances; your manhood would require it;
and no matter what the laws might be, you would honor yourself for doing
it, while your friends and your children to all generations would honor
you for doing it, and every good and honest man would say you had done
right! (Great and prolonged applause, in spite of the efforts of the
Court and marshal.)

Judge Willson remarked: Mr. Langston, you do the Court injustice in
supposing the remarks were called out as a mere idle form, or would not
get a respectful consideration from the Court.

It is not the duty of the Court to make the laws--that is left to other
tribunals; but our duty, under an official oath, is to administer the
laws, good or bad, as we find them.

I find many mitigating circumstances in your case, and the sentence will
therefore be, that you pay a fine of one hundred dollars and the costs
of suit, and be imprisoned in jail for twenty days, and it shall be the
duty of the Marshal to see the imprisonment carried out in this or some
other county jail in this district.



RICHARD T. GREENER, as far as is known, was the first Negro to be
graduated from Harvard University with the degree of Bachelor of Arts.
He received the degree of LL.D. both from Howard University and from
Liberia College, Monrovia, of which he was the dean for some time. In
1897 he was appointed United States Consul to Vladivostok, and served
through the Russian-Japanese War. While in this official capacity he was
decorated by the Chinese Government with the order of the "Double
Dragon," the only Negro ever so honored.

The adage which was once so common, if not so thoroughly axiomatic as to
gain universal credence--"Old men for council and young men for
war"--assumes additional notoriety to-day, when the old men are
quarreling in the council chamber and the young men are kept outside the
door. While the young men are willing to allow much to the school of
experience, many of them are the followers of Locke, and believe in the
doctrine of innate ideas. They believe, to continue the comparison, that
experience and wisdom do not always spring from length of years, nor
does ignorance appertain to youth as a necessity. They dare assert that,
as there are those who would never be men, lived they to be as old as
Methuselah, so there are some whose minds are as well filled, whose
judgments are as mature at twenty-five and eight, and their energy as
decisive as though they were in their tenth lustrum. Conscious of this
fact, it is the absurdity of folly for the young colored men of the
country to sit idly by and see the grandest opportunities slipping away,
the best cases lost by default because of the lack of energy displayed
by many of our so-called leaders who have been longer on the field. With
some very few exceptions, honorable as they are rare, they have done
well for their day and generation; but with regard to the needs and
policy of the Negroes of the present hour they are as innocent as babes.
Men for the most part of excellent temper and good working capacity,
they lack that which is the handmaid and often the indispensable
auxiliary of knowledge and all effective work--judgment. Unconscious
puppets often, they dance to unseen music, moved themselves by hidden

The convention was the favorite resort of the leading Negro of ten years
ago. He convened and resolved, resolved and unconvened--read his own
speeches, was delighted with his own frothy rhetoric, and really
imagined himself a great man. He talked eloquently then, it must be
granted, because he spoke of his wrongs; but when the war overturned the
edifice of slavery "Othello's occupation" was "gone," indeed. The number
who have survived and held their own under the new order of things may
be counted upon one hand. They survive through that grand old law so
much combated but ever true--the survival of the fittest. They alone
give character and reputation to the Negro. They make for him a fame
which begets respect where his wrongs only excited pity. The field is
comparatively clear now some of the older hacks have fallen by the way
or lie spavined at the roadside. The question is, Will the young men of
color throughout the country resolve to begin now to take part in public
affairs, asserting their claim wherever it is denied, maintaining it
wherever contested, and show that the young may be safe in counsel as
well as good for war?

There are some who arrogate to themselves wisdom because of their years,
just as some equally absurd people think they are wise because they
never went to a high school or an academy--men, Heaven save the mark!
who pride themselves on having never slaked their thirst at the fount of
knowledge. It is not our purpose to disparage age. We remember what
Cicero has written, so delightfully, of its pleasures; what Cephalus and
Socrates thought of it in the Republic. We look "toward sunset" with
reverence and respect; but it is with a reverence that makes us
conscious of our own duty. The young men are now studying, working,
some, alas! idling away their time who ought to be the active, earnest
men in the next Presidential campaign; young men who are to control the
destinies of the race. Many of them are of marked ability and decidedly
energetic in character. Not so fluent, perhaps, as their fathers, they
are more thoughtful. They are found throughout the country. We feel
that, if like Roderick Dhu, we should put the whistle to our lips and
blow a stirring blast, they would spring up in every part of the country
ready with voice, pen, or muscle to do their share in any honorable
work. In spirit we do this, as young men ourselves, willing to blow a
blast which, would that the young men of the country would hear and
heed! Young men, to the front! Young men, rouse yourselves! Take the
opportunities; make them where they are denied! "Quit you like men; be

Young men, to the front!

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