Guide Anthony Burns: The Untold Story of Anthony Burns

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Their attempt failed. After a brief trial, he was ordered returned to slavery. On June 2nd, thousands of people lined the streets of Boston. No fugitive slave was ever captured in Massachusetts again. Anthony Burns was not the first Self Emancipated Black man arrested in Boston and returned to slavery.


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But he was the last. More than any other city in the North, Boston was considered a haven for runaways; its black community was especially strong and well organized and it was a city where black and white abolitionists were willing to act on their convictions. All this came into play in May of Consequently, one deputy was shot dead, several men wounded, and 13 arrested. Burns remained in custody.

Anthony Burns (OLD CLIPS)

In an attempt to find a compromise an appeasement to the slavers in their quest to rid the country of free blacks and members of the black Anti-Slave Movement led by hundreds of activists such as Frederick Douglass, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act in September of Anyone who aided an escaped slave or interfered with his or her arrest was subject to fine and imprisonment. The law significantly increased anti-slavery sentiment among Northerners.

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Vigilance Committees were formed to aid fugitive slaves, and some of the more militant abolitionists turned to civil disobedience. In the early spring of , Anthony Burns escaped from Alexandria, Virginia, by hiding on a ship bound for the North. He arrived in Boston at the end of March; before long, the slaver learned of his whereabouts and came to reclaim him.

Marshalls arrested Burns and confined him to the federal courthouse. Word of the arrest spread quickly. Slavery opponents hastily dispatched letters seeking support from abolitionists in other towns. Two days after the arrest, close to 5, abolitionists, most of them white, gathered at Fanueil Hall. But these tactical objections masked what was really at stake in the hearing. The question that gripped Boston in the spring of was not whether Charles Suttle had the right man, but whether New Englanders would facilitate his return to slavery even if he did.


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  • At least within the courtroom, attacks on the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act, like appeals to liberty or conscience, were to no avail. With their outcome all but assured, there is plenty of tragedy but very little drama in the courtroom proceedings that Maltz so carefully records. For Parker, that lesson concerned a proper allocation of responsibility. It was no longer possible to ignore these facts while Burns was held captive and the Boston courthouse used, quite literally, as a slave-pen. There could be no Union without the Fugitive Slave Act and by its terms, Parker insisted, the citizens of Massachusetts were agreeing to act as kidnappers and slave-catchers.

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    Burns did leave the city of Boston. He was returned to slavery under protection of federal troops, joined by the guns and drawn swords of Massachusetts militia and Boston police, who held back massive crowds as they hissed and cursed beneath buildings draped in black cloth.

    But that did not bring the affair to an end. Burns spoke for a time on the abolitionist speaking-circuit, studied at Oberlin College, and eventually took a position leading a black Baptist church in Ontario, Canada, where he died. In chronicling the aftermath of the case, Maltz divides his attention between the fates of Burns himself, that of the rescuers — several of whom were indicted on state and federal charges, none of which stuck — and the campaign to remove Judge Loring.

    Black Abolitionists: Anthony Burns Arrest Angers Blacks and Whites

    The question thus arose, whether Massachusetts law permitted him to hold both jobs at the same time — and, if not, whether state laws that prohibited him from doing so were themselves constitutionally valid. Under the Massachusetts constitution, Governors were authorized to remove judges from office, even without cause, if confirmed by simple majority votes in both houses of the legislature. Readers may also be interested to learn how abolitionists responded to this setback by strengthening the Massachusetts personal liberty law in order to prohibit, among other things, slave commissioners from holding any state office.

    This element of the statute was clearly designed with Loring in mind. And yet it was not until , armed with the new personal liberty law and with the state legislature controlled by Republicans and Nathaniel Banks replacing Henry Gardner as Governor, that a successful removal campaign took place and Loring was finally stripped of his judgeship.

    Anthony Burns

    But many readers, and especially those familiar with the period, may wonder why this episode is treated in such meticulous detail while comparatively little attention is paid to how the Burns case was used successfully by abolitionists to symbolize the nationalization of slave power and to mobilize Northern sentiment against accommodation of Southern interests.

    On the contrary, the Burns case figured centrally in some of the most dramatic and most radical of abolitionist agitation, with far-reaching effects. By clarifying both the price of Union and the limits of moral suasion, the Burns case pushed moderate anti-slavery Northerners toward radical abolition and pacifist abolitionists toward an embrace of violent resistance to slavery. It is, after all, a legal history that Maltz has written — the history of a case, not the history of an era.

    Loring but in what he represents, which, for Maltz, is fidelity to law in the face of political extremism. But, others may feel it rather misses the point of the abolitionist charge.

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    For abolitionists, Loring represented complicity with slavery rather than rule of law — and nothing symbolized lawlessness more powerfully than the image of slavery itself. Loring's decision? For him to sit there deciding still, when this question is already decided from eternity to eternity, and the unlettered slave himself and the multitude around have long since heard and assented to the decision, is simply to make himself ridiculous.