As I was preparing my class notes for today (topic: How to Understand the Declaration of Independence), I realized that we are nigh upon the 200th anniversary of an obscure but fascinating court case out of Maryland in 1819—fascinating not simply for the closing argument, but for who made it.
The case involved a Methodist minister named Jacob Gruber who had delivered an abolitionist sermon to an audience of some 2,600, including some 400 blacks, many of whom were slaves. Gruber was indicted for inciting the slaves to rebellion. Gruber’s young defense lawyer delivered this remarkable (and successful) speech to the jury:
Any man has a right to publish his opinions on that subject [slavery] whenever he pleases . . . . It is a subject of national concern, and may at all times be freely discussed. Mr. Gruber did quote the language of our great act of national independence, and insisted on the principles contained in that venerated instrument. He did rebuke those masters, who, in the exercise of power, are deaf to the calls of humanity; and he warned them of the evils they might bring upon themselves. He did speak with abhorrence of those reptiles, who live by trading in human flesh, and enrich themselves by tearing the husband from the wife—the infant from the bosom of the mother: and this I am instructed was the head and front of his offending. Shall I content myself with saying he had a right to say this? That there is no law to punish him? So far is he from being the object of punishment in any form of proceeding, that we are prepared to maintain the same principles, and to use, if necessary, the same language here in the temple of justice, and in the presence of those who are the ministers of the law. A hard necessity, indeed, compels us to endure the evil of slavery for a time. It was imposed upon us by another nation, while we were yet in a state of colonial vassalage. It cannot be easily, or suddenly removed. Yet while it continues it is a blot on our national character, and every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be effectually, though it must be gradually, wiped away; and earnestly looks for the means, by which this necessary object may be best attained. And until it shall be accomplished: until the time shall come when we can point without a blush, to the language held in the Declaration of Independence, every friend of humanity will seek to lighten the galling chain of slavery, and better, to the utmost of his power, the wretched condition of the slave.
My quiz for class is: who was the lawyer who made this speech? Often a student will suggest Lincoln, which, even for the precocious Lincoln would have been pretty amazing, since Lincoln was only 10 years old in 1819.
The correct answer is: Roger Taney. Yes—that Roger Taney, who went on to deny that blacks were include in the terms of the Declaration of Independence in the Dred Scott decision in 1857. The turnabout in Taney contains a larger story, for some other time.