Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 16
PULPIT AND COURTROOM: AN ANTHOLOGY

Now and then in this long struggle for human rights a masterpiece of argument and erudition makes its appearance. How many have been lost through the years for want of printing, of course, we shall never know. The period of the Missouri debates was especially rich in argumentation, and two splendid treatises that deserved a better fate have been all but lost to us.

A Methodist camp meeting, one of America's most colorful institutions, was in progress in Washington County, Maryland, on August 16, 1818. The preacher appointed to conduct the services on that Sunday evening was indisposed, and the presiding elder of the district, Jacob Gruber, unsuccessful in finding a substitute, reluctantly preached to the three to five thousand whites and three to five hundred assembled Negroes. The text of his sermon was Proverbs 14:34, Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. In substance, he said that the sort of righteousness here indicated embraced right principles, right spirit, and right conduct. Sin or transgression of the Law was a reproach to any person be he rich or poor, parent or child, ruler or ordinary citizen, old or young. There were also national sins, that is, generally prevalent sins. He specified infidelity, intemperance, profaneness, and slavery and oppression.

Gruber's remarks about slavery caused trouble, to some degree, perhaps, because he was from the nonslaveholding state of Pennsylvania. He spoke of the inconsistency in supporting Bible and missionary societies while holding slaves. He spoke of the sale of human beings as livestock, of separation of loved ones by sale, and of rewards for the return of fugitives. He spoke of the uncertainty of the future, and especially of the danger of race warfare plunging everyone, white and black, into eternal damnation in a riot of bloodshed. Then he urged the slaves, sitting back of the platform, to be devout Christians and faithful and obedient servants.

The grand jury of Washington County afterward was prevailed upon by slaveholders to issue an indictment charging Gruber with being a person of evil, seditious, and turbulent disposition, who encouraged divers Negro slaves to resist the lawful authority of their masters, with intent to instigate and incite mutiny and rebellion. Roger B. Taney and associates were engaged for the defense. Knowing that fair and impartial trial in Washington County would be difficult to obtain, Taney had the case transferred to his own town of Frederick. Taney was opposed to slavery. He freed his slaves, bought others to give freedom, and treated all with kindness. Somehow, nearly forty years later, as chief justice of the United States, he handed down the no less than tragic Dred Scott Decision. This, however, was in 1819, and even though we do not have Taney's summation, we do have enough of the argument of Taney and his supporting attorneys to constitute a valuable antislavery document.1

One witness at the trial said that Gruber spoke "of the tyranny of masters, and gave a dialogue of what was to pass in hell between masters and slaves on hot grid-irons." Another said that he declared Negroes were born free and quoted the

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