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For Teachers: Anthony Burns and the Fugitive Slave Act

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 5/31/2012, 1:33 p.m.
Before the 13th Amendment, which officially outlawed slavery, and the Emancipation Proclamation, which legally freed...
For Teachers: Anthony Burns and the Fugitive Slave Act

Before the 13th Amendment, which officially outlawed slavery, and the Emancipation Proclamation, which legally freed all slaves, thousands of slaves escaped to the so-called free states. But the Fugitive Slave Act made sure that being in the North did not necessarily mean being free.

The problem of runaway slaves was addressed in the Constitution. 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."

Southern slave owners felt it was unfair that their "property" could just run away without recourse. Bounty hunters made a fortune tracking down runaway slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act meant that a runaway slave could legally be sent back to their owner.

There were two such laws. Known by abolitionists as the Bloodhound Law, for the dogs that were used to hunt runaways, the first was enacted in 1793. The second was enacted in 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850.

In 1854, Anthony Burns was a 19-year-old escaped slave from Virginia. The young man stowed away on a ship headed for Boston, where he got a job as a store clerk and joined the Twelfth Street Church. All was going well, until he wrote a letter to his brother telling himwhere he was. Their owner, a merchant named Charles Suttle, intercepted the letter and headed to Boston to claim his "property."

You would think that Boston was the perfect place to escape to--it was, after all, the epicenter of abolitionist activity and anti-slavery sentiment. The Boston Vigilance Committee (BVC) had some of the North's most prominent clergy, intellectuals and business people as members and had helped hundreds of escaped slaves. They would turn Burns' case into an abolitionist crusade that would put Massachusetts itself on trial.

An arrest warrant for Burns was issued and deputy marshal Asa Butman was assigned to bring the fugitive into custody and jail him until Suttle arrived to take him back to Virginia.

Butman knew Boston's history of violent resistance and did not want to contend with the abolitionist community. Meanwhile, Burns had no idea that his master was there to take him back.

Butman approached Burns in the street, accusing him of breaking into a silversmith's shop. Eager to clear his name, Burns unwittingly followed Butman and was thrown in jail.

The deputy had his man, but what happened next would set off a firestorm.

The BVC got wind of Burns' arrest and quickly went to work devising a strategy to free him. Butman was afraid that the group would try to rush the jail to free Burns the way the Syracuse Vigilance Committee (SVC) had done with William Henry, successfully spiriting him to Canada. That kind of "lawlessness" could not happen again.

Burns would face Judge Edward Loring, who was also the U.S. slave commissioner. His lawyer was Richard Henry Dana, one of the best in the country. His defense was financed by Amos Lawrence, whose family had made a fortune in the textile industry, which was, ironically, largely dependent on cotton harvested by slaves.