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On May 24, 1854, 19-year-old escaped Virginia slave Anthony Burns walked quietly through the streets of Boston on his way home. Burns worked as a store clerk at a clothing shop on Brattle Street and was a new member of the nearby Twelfth Baptist Church, where the abolitionist Reverend Leonard Grimes — who shared Burns’ Virginia roots — had welcomed him with open arms. The young man hoped to put the painful memories of bondage behind him and build a new life based on freedom, hard work and worshiping God. What happened to Burns next, however, would forever change his life and dramatically alter the relationship between North and South.

Since about the age of 10, Burns had wanted to escape slavery and Virginia. “I began to learn that there is a Christ who came to make us free; I began to hear about a North, and to feel the necessity for freedom of soul and body,” he recalled in an 1855 speech. When he finally got the chance, Burns fled north as a stowaway aboard a ship sailing from Richmond. After landing in Boston, he found a job and tried to lie low. “I got employment, and I worked hard; but I kept my own counsel, and didn’t tell anybody that I was a slave,” he said. Burns’ master was merchant Charles Suttle of Alexandria, who also owned Burns’ brother. Not long after arriving in Boston, Burns made a fateful mistake: He sent a letter to his brother in Virginia disclosing his whereabouts. Suttle intercepted the letter and then sailed north to recapture his escaped “property.”

Fugitive slaves had long caused conflict between the antebellum South and North. Indeed, the framers of the Constitution, after much heated debate, had compelled Northern citizens to cooperate with Southern masters in reclaiming their runaway slaves. Article 4 contains the Constitution’s “fugitive slave” clause, which states: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party, to whom such service or labor may be due.”

But many abolitionists in the North, especially in places like Boston, had worked tirelessly to undermine the fugitive slave clause by helping transport escaped slaves to Canada or the free black communities of the North. One such underground group was the Boston Vigilance Committee (BVC), whose membership included some of the North’s most prominent clergymen, intellectuals, attorneys and merchants. Starting in the 1840s, the BVC had helped hundreds of escaped slaves find freedom, and the group would turn Burns’ case into an abolitionist crusade.

The South was incensed by these clandestine Northern groups that assisted runaway slaves. As part of the Compromise of 1850, championed by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, Congress’ Southern contingent allowed two new free states to enter the Union in exchange for a new, stricter Fugitive Slave Law. In Boston, the Mecca of the American abolitionist movement, Webster would be demonized for his role in the proceedings. He resigned from the Senate that same year, much to the delight of the BVC.

Relying on the power behind the new law, Suttle arrived in Boston, located the federal courthouse and spoke with U.S. Marshal Watson Freeman. A warrant was issued for Burns’ arrest. Freeman ordered his deputy marshal Asa Butman to take the fugitive into custody and jail him in the courthouse until Burns could be transported back to Virginia with Suttle.

Butman was armed with an arrest warrant, but he also understood Boston’s long history of opposition — occasionally violent — to legal authority, perhaps best illustrated by the tarring and feathering of crown officials before the American Revolution. If Boston’s well-connected abolitionist community, especially the BVC, learned about what Butman was up to, he might find himself surrounded by an angry mob bent on helping Burns by whatever means necessary. Butman decided to lie about his intentions — and lit a fire that would combust Boston.

Burns was unaware of Suttle’s scheme and legal maneuverings designed to spirit him out of Boston — until suddenly someone ran up behind him and clapped a hand on his shoulder as he walked home from work. It was Butman. Burns later recalled him shouting, “Stop, stop; you are the fellow who broke into a silversmith’s shop the other night.” Knowing he had done no such thing, Burns went peaceably with Butman, intending to clear up an obvious case of mistaken identity.

Burns was placed in a jail cell on the third floor of Boston’s federal courthouse. Suttle soon appeared, doffed his hat, bowed theatrically and said with mock politeness, “How do you do, Mr. Burns?” Suttle then asked Burns why he had escaped and, receiving no satisfactory answer, asked, “Haven’t I always treated you well, Tony?” Burns responded with telling silence. As the anxious prisoner would later admit: “I got no supper nor sleep that night….Next morning, I was taken down [to stand before a judge] with the bracelets on my wrists.”

The BVC members quickly learned of Burns’ arrest and began planning a multipronged strategy. They would use both legal and extralegal tactics in their attempt to free Burns. The committee members were intimately aware of what their cohorts on the Syracuse (New York) Vigilance Committee had done three years before, when escaped slave William Henry had been arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law. In a premeditated act of opposition, an abolitionist mob had rushed into the Syracuse jail on October 1, 1851, and rescued Henry, who was soon smuggled to Canada. But federal authorities had also learned from the Syracuse affair and meant to forestall such lawlessness in the future.

Boston was abuzz with plots on May 25 as Burns stood before Judge Edward Loring, who was acting as commissioner under the Fugitive Slave Law. Amos A. Lawrence, a member of one of the North’s wealthiest industrial families (ironically, the Lawrences had gotten rich in a New England textile industry dependent on Southern cotton), pledged to fully finance Burns’ legal defense. Lawrence also wrote a scathing letter to Boston Mayor Jerome Smith, saying he “would prefer to see the courthouse razed rather than [Burns] should be returned to slavery.” The BVC arranged to have one of the nation’s finest lawyers, Bostonian Richard Henry Dana, represent Burns.

Dana approached the exhausted Burns in the courtroom, explaining that he wanted to represent him at no cost. The former slave, still shocked from seeing his Virginia master and rightfully fearing retaliation when he was sent back to the Old Dominion, didn’t want to cause any trouble. “It will be no use, they have got me,” he told Dana. Later, famed Boston abolitionist the Rev. Theodore Parker, a leading member of the BVC, also advised Burns to allow for a vigorous legal defense, but Burns continued to hesitate, saying, “If I must go back, I want to go back as easy as I can.” Eventually, members of the BVC convinced Burns to cooperate.

Dana approached Judge Loring and sought a delay of the trial so he could prepare Burns’ defense. Loring, perhaps unwilling to offend prominent citizens such as Dana, Parker, lawyer Wendell Phillips and others, agreed to postpone the proceedings until the following Monday, May 29. Burns went back to jail while the BVC shifted into high gear. Over the next few days, according to historian Henry Mayer, “Boston endured the most dramatic and emotional week in its history since the landing of the hated tea.” The 1773 Boston Tea Party had been a symbolic vigilante act aimed at promoting freedom against tyranny, and the members of the BVC saw the Burns case as another historic opportunity.

Boston in 1854 was not just the abolitionist capital of America but also the North’s intellectual center. Some of the most important writers in the country, many of whom shared abolitionist sentiments, lived in or around Boston. Their ranks included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, educator Bronson Alcott and poet John Greenleaf Whittier. This close-knit network of Boston-area intellectuals championed the dictates of conscience, and for them, slavery was more than simply unconscionable: It was evil incarnate.

The week of Burns’ arrest coincided with large Boston conventions being held by abolitionists and women’s rights groups. Thus famed author Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had helped radicalize middle- and upper-class white Northerners against slavery, happened to be in town, along with hundreds of abolitionists from across the North. Moreover, the month of May had witnessed the passage in Congress of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act. This nullified the 1820 Missouri Compromise and allowed for the possibility of slavery in new federal territories based on Stephen Douglas’ concept of “popular sovereignty.”

On the same day Burns had stood before Judge Loring, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner expressed the outrage many Northerners felt toward the Kansas-Nebraska Act: “It annuls all past compromises with Slavery, and makes all future compromises impossible. Thus it puts Freedom and Slavery face to face, and bids them grapple.” In late May 1854, Boston was in a grappling mood, and Burns was in the middle of the fight.

The BVC organized a huge meeting for the evening of Friday, May 26, at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall. Some 5,000 irate antislavery protesters attended. Wealthy merchant George Russell, a founding member of the BVC, opened the meeting and immediately set the tone: “The time will come when Slavery will pass away….I hope to live in a land of liberty — in a land where no slave hunter shall dare pollute with his presence.”

Next, America’s most radical abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, condemned what he perceived as the twin outrages of that same May week: “I call [the Kansas-Nebraska Act] knocking a man down, and this [the arrest of Burns] is spitting in his face after he is down.” Phillips called for an assault on the courthouse the next morning to rescue Burns: “See to it that tomorrow, in the streets of Boston, you ratify the verdict of Faneuil Hall, that Anthony Burns has no master but God.”

After Phillips’ impassioned abolitionist oration, the Rev. Parker took to the podium, again asking the crowd to assemble the next morning to rescue Burns. “I love peace,” said Parker, “but there is a means and there is an end; liberty is the end, and sometimes peace is not the means towards it.” Parker advocated violent action: “I have heard hurrahs and cheers for liberty many times; I have not seen a great many deeds done for liberty. I ask you, are we to have deeds as well as words?” The crowd screamed, “Yes!” Before Parker had finished, an unknown man ran into the packed hall and shouted “a mob of negroes is in Court Square attempting to rescue Burns!”

While the white abolitionists were meeting in Faneuil Hall, members of Boston’s African-American community had been meeting at the same time at the nearby Tremont Temple. After the meeting, blacks rushed to the courthouse in an attempt to rescue Burns. In the ensuing confusion, hundreds of people ran from the Faneuil Hall meeting to help the Tremont Temple protesters. Parker’s plan for the Saturday morning rescue attempt was jettisoned, as an estimated 2,000 antislavery protesters mobbed Court Square that Friday night, hoping to free Burns.

The first challenge facing the rioters involved getting into the courthouse. The doors were locked, and U.S. Marshal Freeman was expecting trouble. He had strengthened the doors and gathered about 50 armed deputies to “protect” Burns. The rioters were led by white abolitionist and BVC member the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who would later help finance John Brown’s failed 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Higginson found a battering ram and assaulted the courthouse door. Inside, the armed deputies waited anxiously. When the door was finally breached, Higginson rushed in, along with a few black and white rioters. A furious hand-to-hand battle ensued, during which the Rev. Higginson was slashed in the face with a sword. A couple of gunshots rang out.

The rioters were ultimately repulsed, but one of the deputies had been stabbed and killed during the melee. He was 24-year-old Irish immigrant James Batchelder, and his killer was never identified. The Reverend Parker would later blame Batchelder for his own murder: “He liked the business of enslaving a man,” Parker fulminated, “and has gone to render an account to God for his gratui­tous wickedness.”

Freeman was outraged after the courthouse riot and afraid of what might happen next. With the permission of President Franklin Pierce, a company of U.S. Marines was sent to defend the courthouse. Pierce and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis monitored the growing chaos in Boston. In a cable to Freeman, the president said: “Your conduct is approved. The law must be exe­cuted.” In a later cable, Pierce ordered his U.S. attorney in Boston, Benjamin Hallet, to “incur any expense deemed necessary…to insure the execution of the law.”

When Burns’ trial began on Monday morning, May 29, the courthouse looked like a military fortress under siege. Armed Marines were everywhere, and visitors had to pass through several security cordons before reaching Judge Loring’s courtroom. Legal proceedings under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law were, to put it mildly, much different from regular court proceedings. There was no trial by jury under the law. The commissioner, in this case Judge Loring, was simply to decide whether or not the prisoner had fled captivity and who his rightful owner was. As Richard Henry Dana knew, attacks on the constitutionality of the law were unlikely to meet with much success. Dana’s co-counsel, Charles Ellis, put the matter bluntly, saying, “This trial is political.”

Nevertheless, Dana’s argument before Judge Loring appealed to concepts of a “higher law.” Loring, Dana urged, should do the right thing and release Burns despite what the statute might require. As Emerson wrote in 1854: “Ask not, Is it constitutional. Ask, Is it right?” Dana appealed directly to Loring’s sense of equity and conscience: “If [you decide] against him, a free man is made a slave forever….The eyes of many millions are upon you, Sir. You are to do an act which will hold its place in the history of America….May your judgment be for liberty and not slavery.”

Meanwhile the Rev. Grimes, who called Burns a member of his flock, attempted to purchase Burns from Charles Suttle. Grimes and Suttle eventually agreed to a payment of $1,200, but then Suttle balked. Ironically enough, Suttle was likely anxious about running afoul of the Massachusetts law that made selling slaves illegal, a law advocated by the same abolitionists on the BVC who hoped to free Burns. “After Burns gets back to Virginia,” Suttle told Grimes, “you can have him” for the agreed-upon price.

On June 2, 1854, Judge Loring was prepared to hand down his decision. Mayor Smith, fearing additional mob violence, placed the city under martial law. Tight security around the courthouse was made even tighter. When the moment arrived, Loring decided to abide by the Fugitive Slave Law rather than the higher law suggested by Dana and his abolitionist brethren. At 2 p.m. Burns was escorted out of the courthouse, surrounded by a large contingent of Marines. Some 50,000 Bostonians lined streets draped in funereal black bunting, booing, hissing and screaming “kidnappers!” Burns was marched down to Long Wharf to begin his long voyage back to Virginia and slavery.

Abolitionist Samuel May, after watching in silent rage as the Burns procession passed by, said: “He has gone! And Boston and Massachusetts lie, bound hand and foot, willing slaves at the foot of the Slave Power.” Abolitionist lawyer and BVC member John Swift reacted in similar fashion: “It was too much for me — to my inmost soul I felt the deep degradation of that moment. Not only had Anthony Burns been deprived of his rights, I had lost something — had lost the proud privilege of saying that I had life and being in a free commonwealth.” Another Boston attorney watched the procession from his office window, admitting, “when it was all over, and I was left alone in my office, I put my face in my hands and wept.”

Boston would never be the same again. As Amos Lawrence described the transformation, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.” At a huge July 4 outdoor meeting held in nearby Framingham a month after the Burns decision, William Lloyd Garrison made his point not with words but with flames. He stood before the crowd and burned a copy of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and then a copy of Judge Loring’s written decision in the Burns case. Finally, Garrison held up a copy of the U.S. Constitution and set it ablaze, condemning it as “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

Thoreau would have the final word at the July 4 abolitionist meeting. His classic Walden would be published a few weeks later, but now Thoreau wanted to speak about Burns and what his fate meant to the nation. Thoreau began by rejecting any possibility of political compromise with the South: “They who have been bred in the school of politics fail now and always to face the facts. Their measures are half measures and makeshifts merely. They put off the day of settlement indefinitely, and meanwhile the debt accumulates.” In Thoreau’s eyes, Massachusetts and the entire North was guilty of complicity in the sins of slavery. The silence of the North was its crime: The Burns trial was “really the trial of Massachusetts.”

Thoreau believed that Northern silence in the face of the injustice against Burns and his 3 million fellow slaves could no longer continue. He echoed arguments made by Dana in front of Judge Loring: “What is wanted is men…who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or the decision of the majority.” Thoreau was bold enough to take his remarks to their logical conclusion: “Let the State [of Massachusetts] dissolve her union with the slaveholder.”

In the end, the Rev. Grimes would succeed in buying Burns’ freedom. Burns returned to Boston, later studied at Ohio’s Oberlin College and then became a Baptist minister. On July 27, 1862, just seven weeks before Lincoln would issue his Emancipation Proclamation, 28-year-old Anthony Burns died in Canada from tuberculosis. As much as anyone, Burns had exposed the gaping divisions between North and South that would lead to disunion and Civil War.

For additional reading, see: The Trials of Anthony Burns, by Albert J. von Frank; Anthony Burns: A History, by Charles Emery Stevens; and Thoreau’s 1854 essay “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

This article was written by Chuck Leddy and originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!