Anthony Burns and the Quest to End Slavery
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Anthony Burns’ story takes place in 1854, seventy years after Quock Walker’s suit for freedom, in the age of mounting sectional tensions and a strict Fugitive Slave Act. On May 24, 1854, Burns, an escaped slave, was arrested on orders to return him to Virginia. Burns had escaped earlier in the spring from Alexandria, Virginia, and when his owner learned that he had relocated in Boston, he traveled North to reclaim him, Burn protested his arrest, and the community, enraged that the tenets of slavery were still being upheld in their state, went above and beyond to rally behind his cause.
Burn’s owner made it clear that he was willing to sell and/or free Burns for a price of $1200 dollars. Through broadsides like the one below, the Boston community drew attention to the need to raise money and when the money was raised, outrage spread when Burns wasn’t freed.
This specific document elicits urgency to show support at Burns’ trial. From the immediate labeling of his enslavers as “kidnappers” and the phrase “SLAVE PEN” written in all capitals, the anger and rallying cry is clear.
Two prominent lawyers and members of the Boston Vigilance Committee, a black lawyer named Robert Morris and a white lawyer named Richard Dana, who he would later write to for financial support, took up the community call to support him. They, however, were up against a serious force.
In September of 1850, the Compromise of 1850 resulted in the passing of a strict Fugitive Slave Act. This new and improved abetter of slavery found that anyone who helped a slave escape or interfered with their capture was, “ subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction before the District Court of the United States for the district in which such offense may have been committed.”
Meanwhile, days after his arrest, the local community decided that they couldn’t sit back and wait for a verdict. A group of over 5,000 abolitionists gathered at Faneuil Hall and a smaller group of mostly black abolitionists met at Tremont Temple. The latter group decided to act: they hatched a plan to break Burns out of jail. The African-American activists used a beam to break open the courtroom door and were met with a fired shot and beatings. The mostly-white abolitionists who were meeting at Faneuil Hall heard of the efforts, and a group of over a hundred rushed to the scene, joining the effort by throwing bricks and attacking the doors with axes. The violent, passionate effort to free Burns, later labeled the “Boston Slave Riot,” was futile: law enforcement prevailed at the cost of one officer, thirteen arrests, and several serious injuries.
Here we see a pamphlet advocating for a debrief of the event at Faneuil hall. Through the passionate language and cost, we can see that this event became a rallying cry for the community.
Elizabeth Seaver, a Bostonian living in the midst of the protests, documented the tense scene in a letter to her father Benjamin Seaver. From it, we get a clear picture of the Boston environment in the days leading up to and following the riot and trial. Seaver says that this period, “ will long be remembered as a sad one by the citizens of Boston,” in reference to Judge Edward G. Loring’s ruling on the matter of Burns’ return. She also goes on to write about how Burn’s identification of his master’s identity in the trial ultimately results in his recapture.
From Elizabeth Seaver’s correspondence with family, we know that preparations to send Burns back to Virginia began that Friday and that the Boston Mayor gave military power to keep peace in the city as the steamer to remove him arrived. The security presence was so high, according to Seaver that, “ business there was necessarily suspended.” As Burns was marched to the ship, thousands of spectators watch on, booing and hissing “Shame!” in support of his freedom as he began his journey to Virginia.
The next week, courtroom proceedings began. Believing that his resistance would result in a far worse punishment, Burns identified Charles Stuttle as his owner, and therefore, by the rules written in by the Fugitive Slave Act, was found to be the property of Stuttle by Judge Edward G. Loring, and it was ordered that he return back to Virginia.
While the trial became a sensational point of support for abolition in Boston, Burn’s legacy is truly extraordinary. News of the trial and riot was covered nationally, drawing both support and exacerbating existing tensions.
Nine months after his return to Virginia, Burns was met with $1300 raised by black Baptist Reverend Leonard Grimes, who purchased his freedom. A book was published about his case and the public outcry it caused, and the funds were used to pay for two years of high academic learning at Oberlin College, where he would graduate from, eventually becoming a pastor. Sadly, the horrific conditions he experienced during his time enslaved resulted in a premature death at the age of 28. His legacy, however, would become a rallying cry for abolition in the years to come.