The Oberlin Evangelist
August 3, 1859
The Higher Law.
The writer of the following letter is a man who thinks strongly and feels strongly but he has not been thought a fanatic.
Ann Arbor, July 21, 1859
Dear Brother Fitch: -
Your “Rescuer” was sent to me by somebody – the hand-writing resembled that of James Fairchild. When I received it, I was moved in spirit to sit down and write you, and your “companions in distress” through you, a letter. I wanted to say something about the matchless foolery of the sentiments expressed by Judge Willson and District Attorney Belden against regarding any law, as higher than human law. I was, however, so absolutely engrossed at the time with other duties that I could not find time to embody what I wished to express; but I intended, if you had continued in jail and to publish the Rescuer, to prepare and furnish you an article for it at the earliest opportunity respecting the sentiments refereed to. When I saw that you had emerged into day once more, I rejoiced, and I then dropped my purposed communication; but, on reading the Oberlin Evangelist of the 13th inst., received to-day, I resolved to write you a short letter anyhow, merely glancing at what I meant to say, had I written the communication referred to.
If there is any one thing more at war with the whole philosophy of law and government in general or with the whole ground and spirit of our own government in particular, more destructive of all liberty, more subversive of all morality, political and social, and of all real religion, more oblivious of the highest ends of life in social relations, more false and stupid, more to be scorned, hissed at, and spurned by all lovers of our free an Christian Institutions, more exhaustive of the maturest effrontery as well as nonsense, than any other that a judge or advocate, as such, could utter, it is the doctrine that there is no law higher than human enactments, to which, I those enactments are opposed, men are bound to yield obedience in spite of them – in other words, that human laws must always be obeyed. It would require a volume to contain even a statement of all the pernicious consequences of this revolting absurdity. Suppose the law-making power, whether one, a few, or the majority of many, were atheistic, and should prohibit all public worship; or were superstitious, and should require all to worship idols or images; or were opposed to education, and should prohibit parents to educate their children; or were enemies to the poor, an should require the rich to enslave them; or, being so disposed, should require what every one knew to be wrong, and prohibit what every one knew to be right. Would any one, not a fool or a knave, pretend that we would be bound to obey such enactments? – that there is no higher law, which we are bound to obey in opposition to them? And, if such things were enacted in pretended, or even real, conformity to a constitution, would any one say that therefore, there is no higher law, and they are obligatory? Suppose persons believed, even mistakenly, if you please, that they were not constitutional, must they nevertheless obey them? Suppose they believe that, to obey them is to incur the frown of God and to jeopardy their eternal well being, are they bound to obey them foe all that? Suppose they believe it better to disobey them, and suffer the penalty, if they must, have they no right to do so? Suppose they appeal to justice, to humanity, to benevolence, to the private requirements or prohibitions of God in the Bible as palpably against them, and disallowing obedience to them, do they appeal to chimeras, or to realities? And, if to realities, are they not higher law? And how does it release them from the absolute duty of obeying this higher, law and bind them to obey these opposing enactments of me, which, by the fact of opposing, are really no laws at all, but impositions, to know or be told that they receive protection from the other laws of the government? What, in the name of common sense, has this to do with the question of their duty respecting the false laws? How can this lay them under the slightest obligation to obey such laws, any more than the fact that there is an emperor of China does? Were Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego right in obeying God’s law, and disobeying Nebuchadnezzar’s, or were they wrong? Was Daniel right in obeying God’s, and wrong in disobeying Darius’?
The fact is, this doctrine is an outrage on all common sense, an ethical Caliban, having wickedness for its father and stupidity for its mother. Did those who asset it ever read history? Do they know that well nigh all the oppression, all the persecution, all the invasions of human rights and human liberties, ever perpetrated – all the martyrdoms of Christians by heathen Rome and Papal governments – all the persecutions of the Huguenots in France, of the Protestants in the Netherlands, of the Covenanters in Scotland, of the Reformers and Puritans in England – all the slaughters, imprisonments, burnings, torturings, exilings and pillagings practiced upon them – all the suppressions of oppressed peoples by tyrants, on bloody fields, in prisons, and on scaffolds, have been done, always done, in the name of this atheistic and diabolical doctrine – a doctrine which tyrants alone can advocate, which serviles and atheists alone can accept, which is a loathing and nuisance to God and all good beings, a curse to mankind, and the ridicule of demons?
And, only to think of the creatures that assert this doctrine, and scoff at the higher law and urge juries to vigor against those who appeal to it, when dragged before their bar, gravely charging those who so appeal and are so arraigned, and all who hold such sentiments with being almost invariably characterized by intolerance and bigotry!” Intolerance and bigotry, indeed! Why, you may stew them all down into one, and make an extract of all the bigotry there is in them from core to cuticle, and it would be as nothing compared with what is bound up in the skin of this one judge, this one attorney, and every one like them! No one can doubt this who reads the rant of the Judge, following this charge, against the leaders of those who advocate the higher law, and of his brother the Attorney. They go into convulsions at the very thought of “Oberlin saints.” Hear this Judge to the Grand Jury – “Gentlemen, this sentiment should find no place or favor in the Grand Jury Room.” Isn’t that a beautiful contrast to the spirit of bigotry? Especially after the rant that has preceded it? It is a solemn duty to expose such monstrous hypocrisy.
I say hypocrisy advisedly. These men know, as every man does, that there is a law higher than human enactments, and that it is only from it that these obtain their binding authority. They know that this higher law is perfect, while all human laws are imperfect; and they recognize and refer to this perfect law and its Administrator every time they administer an oath. They know that human law at best is nothing but a weak and distorted reflection of the eternal, all-perfect, and unchangeable one, which embodies our duty to man I the precept – “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” – and I that other, ’Whatsoever ye would that me should do to you, do ye even to them;” and they know that oppressing me, and that hounding them over the country, seizing them, dragging them back to their masters, and pocketing the vile trash they get for pay is an execrable violation off it. They know that the men who will do this are dishonorable, mean and contemptible; and yet they dare to insult justice on her throne, and the common judgment of all mankind, not implicated in such wickedness, by railing at “Oberlin saints” for refusing to be such and opposing such, and at the higher law as “Devil’s law!”
But enough. Let them bear the honors they have won before the nation; and let them stand for beacons to others, warning them to beware of following in their steps.
I must close. I have written this I running haste, but it expresses substantially, my views of the higher law, and of men who scoff at and attempt to set it aside.
As ever, yours truly,
SAML. D. COCHRAN.