Aspen Country Day students re-enact historic slave trial |

Aspen Country Day students re-enact historic slave trial

History went on trial at the Pitkin County Courthouse Thursday.

A class of 16 seventh-graders from Aspen Country Day School re-enacted the case of Ohio v. Bushnell, an important test case in America’s anti-slavery days.

A litigation team of 12- and 13-year-olds questioned fellow classmates, who role-played actual witnesses from the trial. Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely presided, and a jury of parents, teachers and a reporter heard testimony.

The students went through a competitive application process to become lawyers, a process that included letters of recommendation and a statement of intent.

The courtroom probably looked nothing like the original courthouse of 1859. Still, the students made a dedicated effort at authenticity ” from painted beards to farmers’ suspenders. By the time the jury went into deliberation, it seemed the fate of the nation was at stake.

The historic trial tried Ohio resident Simeon Bushnell for aiding the escape of three recaptured slaves from Kentucky. Bushnell was indicted for violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which stated slaves who escaped to free states were still the property of their Southern owners.

It was clear from the students’ reconstruction that the case was far from clear cut. The defendant was clearly guilty of the law, but was the law justified? Was it constitutional? America in 1859 was a nascent republic still struggling to define herself. Nothing was simple.

Social studies teacher Julian Underwood, who organized the trial, said the activity helped students understand history’s ambiguous nature.

“There’s a difference between moral law and law in the books,” Underwood said. “There are certain things that have occurred in our history that weren’t necessarily right, but that might have served a noble purpose ” preserving the union in this case. These are all issues the students addressed.”

The jury, with the perspective of history, returned a not guilty verdict. Presented the same evidence in 1859, an Ohio jury convicted Bushnell.

Shouts of jubilation came from the defense team upon hearing the verdict, but it was clear to everyone that the decision was not so clear cut.

The fugitive slave act was part of the Great Compromise of 1850, a heroic attempt by federal lawmakers to ease North-South tensions. Even before Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, lawmakers were scrambling to bind up the nation’s wounds. But the stitches, as ragged and makeshift as the Mason-Dixon line, were never strong enough; even by the Ohio vs. Bushnell case of 1859, the very fabric of society was on the verge of an irrevocable rupture.

“This whole period was marked by a really gray area,” Underwood said. “It was a crucial moment in American history, which had far-ranging consequences for all of us. I think this trial helped bring this moment to life for the students.”

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is

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