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A Higher Law: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858 Showing

July 1, 2023 @ 1:00 pm 3:00 pm

The Oberlin–Wellington Rescue of 1858 was a key event in the history of abolitionism leading up to the Civil War in which a group of 37-white and black men in Ohio were charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This is the first time that a ‘higher law’ defense was used in a federal court case.
John Price, who had been enslaved on a farm in Mason County, Kentucky, fled to Oberlin in 1856 where he was living for two-years before he was kidnapped by two Kentucky slave catchers outside of town. They took him to Wellington where they expected to catch the next train where where they could return him to slavery in Kentucky.
Abolitionists from Oberlin and Wellington intervened in the kidnapping at the local hotel and fought for his release and they eventually secured him away from the bounty hunters and escorted him to his freedom to Canada.
Thirty-seven men were indicted and imprisoned for violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and a trial was held using the higher law as a defense. The rescuers were freed through legal technicalities, but the repercussions of their acts would reverberate throughout the south as tension continued leading up to the Civil War.
After the trial, two of the Oberlin rescuers participated in the John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in which one was killed in the raid and the other, John Copeland, was executed with John Brown in December, 1859.

Oberlin Heritage Center


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Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library Walnut Hills Branch

2533 Kemper Ln.
Cincinnati, Ohio 45206 United States
(513) 369-6053
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541 West Rich Street, Columbus, Ohio 43215

Office: 614.461.7802