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

Despite strong support, Burns was unnerved at seeing his master and terrified about what would happen to him once he was back in Virginia. He wanted to go quietly without incident, but members of the BVC finally convinced him to fight for his freedom.

The week of Burns' arrest was, by coincidence, the same week that Boston was hosting conventions of abolitionists and women's suffrage groups. Abolitionists were protesting the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a controversial act that voided the Missouri Compromise and would allow slavery in new territories. Anti-slavery emotions were high.

On May 26, 1854, a group of prominent white abolitionists met to discuss breaking Burns out of jail. At the same time, a group of about 2,000 stormed the courthouse in their own attempt to rescue Burns. Expecting a riot, the doors of the courthouse had been reinforced and 50 armed deputies were assigned to guard Burns. The crowd broke down the door and stormed the courthouse. Fighting broke out and a deputy was killed.

Burns' trial began on May 29 in a courthouse that looked more like a military fortress, with armed soldiers everywhere and security checkpoints for visitors. There was no jury; Loring simply had to decide whether Burns had unlawfully fled captivity and if his owner could now reclaim his property.

Dana argued, urging the judge not to send a man who had been living in freedom in Boston back to the bonds of slavery, despite what the law said. Meanwhile, Burns' pastor, the Rev. Grimes, offered Suttle $1,200 for his freedom. Suttle did not want to get into trouble for selling a slave in Massachusetts, so he agreed to sell Burns at the agreed-upon price once they returned to Virginia.

On June 2, 1854, Loring was set to give his decision. The city was placed under martial law. Security at the courthouse was even tighter. Despite Dana's passionate plea, the judge ruled that Burns be returned to his owner. Some 50,000 Bostonians lined the streets draped in funeral black as Burns was led out of the courthouse to begin the trip back to Virginia.

But Boston would never be the same. Samuel May said "He has gone! And Boston and Massachusetts lie, bound hand and foot, willing slaves to the foot of Slave Power."

Amos Lawrence said, "We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists."

At a huge outdoor rally held on July 4 in Framingham, William Lloyd Garrison made his point with fire. He burned a copy of the slave law and a copy of Loring's decision. He then held up a copy of the U.S. Constitution and burned it, condemning it as "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell."

But it was Henry David Thoreau who would have the final word. He condemned Massachusetts and the entire North as complicit with the South in the sins of slavery by not protecting Burns or his 3 million fellow captives. He said, "Let the state of Massachusetts dissolve her union with the slaveholder."

Grimes did eventually buy Burns' freedom. He returned to Boston and later attended Oberlin College in Ohio before becoming a Baptist minister.

On July 27, 1862, less than two months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Burns died in Canada at age 28 from tuberculosis.


  • Look It Up: Use the Internet or another reference source to learn more about the trial of Anthony Burns and how it changed Boston.
  • Talk About It: Discuss the case of Anthony Burns and the Fugitive Slave Act. Talk about the reasons a "free state" would allow a slave to be returned to bondage.
  • Write It Down: If you had been Anthony Burns' lawyer, how would you have argued his case?

This Week in Black History

  • May 29, 1851: Sojourner Truth delivers her famous "Ain't I a Woman" speech at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention.
  • May 30, 1854: The Kansas-Nebraska Act opens northern territories to slavery.
  • June 1, 1835: The fifth National Negro Convention is held in Philadelphia, urging Blacks to abandon the words "African" and "colored" when referring to themselves or Negro organizations.