While Dickinson College Professor “John McClintock spent twelve long, difficult, though happy years in Carlisle,” Martha C. Slotten notes that for him any “sense of belonging…was quickly dispelled in the riot on the square” in June 1847. Two slaveowners from Hagerstown, Maryland – James Kennedy and Howard Hollingsworth – arrived in Cumberland County and caught three fugitive slaves in Shippensburg. They brought the fugitives to Carlisle for a hearing early on June 2, 1847. The justice of the peace accepted the slaveowners’ evidence that the three African Americans were slaves and allowed the two men to take custody. After the ruling, the Cumberland County Sheriff agreed to hold the fugitive slaves until the slaveowners left for Maryland. Yet after local attorney Samuel Adair filed a writ of habeas corpus, Judge Samuel Hepburn scheduled another hearing for that afternoon. While Judge Hepburn noted that the county sheriff could not hold the three fugitives, he ruled that the slaveowners were allowed to bring them back to Maryland.
Around this time Professor McClintock, who had been on his way to the local post office, heard about the case and entered the courtroom. McClintock asked Hepburn whether he knew about a new Pennsylvania law that made it illegal for state officials to help those who tried to catch fugitive slaves. “Neither [Hepburn] nor the lawyers knew any thing about the law,” as McClintock observed. Adair wanted to file another writ of habeas corpus and asked McClintock to get his copy of the law. After McClintock returned, he “stood on the [courthouse] porch [and] talk[ed] with several young lawyers.” McClintock observed that as he talked with the lawyers “the slaves were brought out” and “the free blacks, seeing their fellows about to be carried away into interminable bondage, made a rush and carried off the woman and child.” James Kennedy, who as McClintock noted “was badly hurt” during “the melee,” later died from his injuries on June 23. Later that day McClintock learned that he had been “charged with exciting the riot.”
Moncure Conway, who was only 15 in 1847 and later became a well known southern abolitionist, described McClintock as “the last man one might expect to see mixed up in any disturbance.” In 1904 he recalled the “wild excitement” that occurred after Dickinson College students were informed about the accusations against McClintock:
There was probably not an abolitionist among the students, and most of us perhaps were from slave States. My brother and I, like others, packed our trunks to leave college. A meeting of all the students was held in the evening – in the college chapel – at which President Emory spoke a few reassuring words; but we Southerners, wildly excited, appointed a meeting for next morning. At this meeting (June 3) we were all stormy until the door opened and the face of M’Clintock was seen, serene as if about to take his usual seat in his recitation-room. There was a sudden hush. Without excitement or gesture, without any accent of apology or of appeal, he related the simple facts, then descended from the pulpit and moved quickly along the aisle and out of the door.
When M’Clintock had disappeared there were consultations between those sitting side by side, and two or three Seniors drew up resolutions of entire confidence in the professor, which were signed by every one present (ninety) and sent to leading papers for publication.
The New York National Anti-Slavery Standard was one of the newspapers that published the students’ resolutions, which noted:
As to Prof. McClintock’s alleged participation in the transaction, we are not only satisfied from the most responsible testimony that the charge is untrue, but from his long established character we believe him incapable of any such thing. The story did indeed come to us as first so perverted and exaggerated, that, with the natural warmth of Southerners, many of us were excited against him…. So far are we from desiring his removal from the Institution, that we thus publicly express our regard for him as a Professor, a gentleman, and a Christian.
On August 25, 1847 McClintock and 33 African Americans found themselves back in the Carlisle Courthouse on charges related to the June 2 riot. While McClintock at first thought Thaddeus Stevens might represent him, Stevens explained that it would be best to find someone else. After he heard the “views as promulgated by the trustees and president of [Dickinson College],” Stevens became concerned since “the stand which I should take (on inalienable rights and the Declaration of Independence) would conflict with those views…and might injure your institution.” Instead McClintock chose William Meredith, who later served as Secretary of the Treasury in Zachary Taylor’s administration. McClintock apparently also paid for a lawyer to represent the other men on trial. As Conway explained, Judge Hepburn presided over a trial in which:
“Witness after witness, perjurer after perjurer, came forward to testify that McClintock was with those who struck down Kennedy, had said to the fallen man that he was served right, etc. Those acquainted with McClintock knew this testimony to be false, but how could it be disproved? A well-known citizen, Jacob Rheem, testified that he was told by a man that he had overheard two men say they were resolved to drive McClintock out of Carlisle. The overheard conversation indicated a conspiracy, but Rheem could not remember the name or locality of his informant… When all seemed hopeless Rheem sprang forward and pointed to a man just entering the courtroom, and cried, “There’s the man!” The stranger, called to the stand, fully corroborated Rheem.”
After a four day trial, the court reconvened on the morning of August 30 to hear the jury’s verdict. “The result was anxiously expected” and, as the Harrisburg (PA) Democratic Union reported, the jury found McClintock not guilty and convicted only thirteen of the other men on trial. Yet Judge Hepburn denounced the verdict and noted that had it been possible he would have set aside the jury’s decision. After the trial, McClintock told a friend in Connecticut that “[Hepburn’s] conduct..has been…severely censured in Pennslyvania” and that some of “the weightiest newspapers of both parties” had actually gone so far as to “threaten him with impeachment.” Hepburn was only “a young man, very ambitious of political distinction, but of very narrow mind, limited education, and vulgar feelings,” as McClintock observed.
Hepburn’s reaction explained his decision on September 7 for the jail sentences. While three men received relatively short sentences (between ten days and six months), the others had to face what the Carlisle (PA) Herald & Expositor considred a “severe sentence” of “three years solitary confinement.” After the trial, McClintock worked with attorneys to reverse Hepburn’s decision. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the case in May 1848 and Judge Thomas Burnside delivered the unanimous opinion for the court:
“When I came to the bar there were old and experienced judges on the bench and aged lawyers in practice, but I never heard of (or witnessed) any person convicted of a riot being sent to the penitentiary. Our laws do not authorize the sentence inflicted in the case before us, and the sentence is reversed. As the prisoners have been confined in the Eastern Penitentiary about three fourths of a year, we deem this as severe a punishment as if they had been confined in the county jail, where they legitimately should have been sent, for two years. They are discharged.”