INTRODUCTION: The great object of the Compromise of 1850 was to remove the slavery question from national politics. It settled the status of California -- an urgent matter once the "Gold Rush" began. It also provided a formula, popular sovereignty, which put off indefinitely the status of the other territories seized in the War with Mexico. Further, the Compromise abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. This step promised to render the abolition movement far less troublesome. Anti-slavery activists had campaigned for years against the trade in the District. [Click on image for larger version.]
Their petitions had called upon Congress to ban the trade. Slavery in Georgia or Mississippi might be a matter of states' rights, but the Constitution gave Congress control over the District. Southern efforts to silence this demand with the Gag Rule had actually strengthened the abolitionist cause. Ending the slave trade in the District could have served as a strategic retreat. Anyone wishing to buy or sell slaves could do so in northern Virginia or southern Maryland. So the effect upon the trade itself was nil. Yet Southern politicians demanded a concession in return. This was a stronger Fugitive Slave Law. Under its terms northern officials, such as judges, sheriffs, and the like, had to cooperate actively in the apprehension and return of escaped slaves.
Relatively few runaway slaves made it as far as a northern state. Of those who did, a significant percentage continued on to Canada. It was in the white South's interest to bank down the slavery controversy and to strengthen the states' rights argument. As a result, their insistence upon the Fugitive Slave Law as a quid pro quo for the ending of the slave trade in the District of Columbia was misguided, at best. It gave to abolitionists a new cause, one every bit as inflammatory as the slave trade had proven. The most dramatic case in point was the "kidnapping" of fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston in 1854.
Abolitionists sought to portray slavery as a threat to the freedom of whites. Proslavery Southerners unintentionally strengthened this argument by insisting upon northern cooperation in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. The number of slaves who successfully escaped to the North was small, but the handful of cases in which fugitives were returned to their masters had enormous political impact -- as the story of Anthony Burns shows.
- Why did the capture and return of a single slave, among all of the wrongs associated with the “peculiar institution,” do so much to turn northern public opinion against slavery?
- How did the abolitionists' usd of the term "kidnapping" contribute to this impact?
1850: The Compromise of 1850 passed, including a new Fugitive Slave Law requiring the cooperation of state and local officials in the apprehension and return of escaped slaves
March 1854: Anthony Burns escaped from his master in Richmond, Virginia and reached Boston, Massachusetts where he found work
May 24, 1854: Burns was arrested
May 26, 1854: Mass meeting at Faneuil Hall in Boston to protest Burns' "kidnapping" and unsuccessful attempt to rescue Burns, led by Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Martin Stowell
May 27, 1854: Burns returned to his "owner"
June 1854: Anti-slavery activists purchased Burns' freedom; Burns became noted anti-slavery speaker
Here is Burns' own account of his capture:
When I was going home one night I heard some one running behind me; presently a hand was put on my shoulder, and somebody said: "Stop, stop; you are the fellow who broke into a silversmith's shop the other night." I assured the man that it was a mistake, but almost before I could speak, I was lifted from off my feet by six or seven others, and it was no use to resist. In the Court House I waited some time, and as the silversmith did not come, I told them I wanted to go home for supper. A man then come to the door; he didn't open it like an honest man would, but kind of slowly opened it, and looked in. He said, "How do you do, Mr. Burns?" and I called him as we do in Virginia, "master!" He asked me if there would be any trouble in taking me back to Virginia, and I was brought right to a stand, and didn't know what to say. He wanted to know if I remembered the money that he used to give me, and I said, "Yes, I do recollect that you used to give me twelve and a half cents at the end of every year I worked for you." He went out and came back next morning. I got no supper nor sleep that night. The next morning they told me that my master said that he had the right to me, and as I had called him "master," having the fear of God before my eyes, I could not go from it. Next morning I was taken down, with the bracelets on my wrists -- not such as you wear, ladies, of gold and silver -- but iron and steel, that wore into the bone. N.Y. Tribune, n.d., in the Liberator, March 9, 1855
Burns's version corresponds closely with contemporary newspaper stories. Here is the account from the Massachusetts Spy, a Worcester newspaper. Why a Worcester paper? One reason is that the Spy account is as full and as accurate as any. Another is that Worcester residents, particularly Martin Stowell and the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, played especially important roles in the efforts to prevent Burns' "rendition" back to Virginia. Spy editory John Milton Earle was a personal acquaintance of Stowell and Higginson as well as a staunch anti-slavery advocate.
Once word of Burns's arrest spread, abolitionists called a meeting at Faneuil Hall. The Hall was, and remains today, a celebrated spot. A galaxy of major figures in Massachusetts history, from John Quincey Adams to Daniel Webster, had spoken there. And the speakers on Burns's behalf, especially Wendell Phillips and the Rev. Theodore Parker, were famous for their eloquence in an age devoted to public oratory. Both were outspoken advocates of abolition and opponents of the Fugitive Slave Law. So were the members of the audience. The task was not to persuade those in the audience to condemn the "kidnapping" of Anthony Burns. The task was to rescue him. How were speeches to accomplish that? The task was even more complicated because the organizers of the meeting had not had time to come up with a plan of action. That was somehow to come out of the meeting itself. The most important speaker was Wendell Phillips. It became his task to come up with a plan. As you can see from the crowd's interjections (in parentheses in the Spy account), Phillips could effectively measure how successful he was in gaining their confidence by their reactions to his statements. This give-and-take suggests something of the centrality of oratory in the public life of the United States throughout the nineteenth century.
The Massachusetts Spy paid a stenographer to take down the speeches verbatim and then published them in full. Here is the full text. [For a larger version of the handbill advertising the meeting, click on the image.]
SPEECH OF WENDELL PHILLIPS.
[Phonographically reported for the "Spy."]
Mr. Chairman and Fellow Citizens: - You have called me to this platform - for what? - do you wish to know what I want? I want that man set free in the streets of Boston. - (Great cheering.)
. . . .
Fellow citizens, to-morrow is to determine whether we are worthy of our city government: whether we are ready to do the duty which they leave us to do. (Applause.) - There is no law in Massachusetts, and I hold, that when law ceases, the soverignty of the people begins. I am against "squatter sovereignty" in Nebraska, and I am against kidnapper sovereignty in the streets of Boston. - (Great applause.) Yet, this is just the state of things to-day. I went to see that poor man this morning, and stood with him face to face. He was arrested early in the evening, night before last, as he was returning from his work, by seven men, with the customary lie that he was taken up for breaking into a store, and that if he would submit quietly and be examined for half an hour, there would be no difficulty. And with that lie he was got into the Court House, and there between four walls, with a dozen special officers, under Marshal Freeman, about him, the pretence was dropped, and his master appeared. Mark me! His master appeared. (Cries of "No!" "No!" he has no master!) See to it, fellow citizens, that in the streets of Boston, you ratify the verdict of Faneuil Hall to-night, that Anthony Burns has no master but God! (Sensation, followed by enthasiastic cheers.)
I say, Mr. Chairman, the first man admitted to that room was Col. Suttle, of Virginia. What right had he there? None at all - none whatever! The unfortunate man was carried into Court before an infamous Slave Commissioner, Edward G. Loring - a man whom the State of Massachusetts appoints a Judge of Probate. (Nine groans for him were given, with considerable unction.)
. . . . . .
But, Mr. Chairman, I said Col. Suttle was admitted - for what? To question the man; - to find out whether he would acknowledge himself a slave; to take advantage of his fear, of his confusion, of his ignorance! The master, the slaveholder, the kidnapper, is admitted to see him. Not one single friend, - neither his employer, nor his clergyman, nor any body, could be admitted to converse with him. I went this morning, with his clergyman, to Marshall Freeman, . . . and we asked to be admitted to him. "No, sir," said the Marshall, "you cannot see him. I do not admit anybody but his counsel to see him." I replied he has no counsel. Said I, Mr. Freeman, why did you admit Mr. Suttle to see him last night? He made me only an evasive answer, he had none other to make. That is one-sided justice in the State of Massachusetts. That room has been open to the slaveholders, that they might mould, and overawe, and bully, and catch in his talk, and confuse the poor trembling fugitive; but of his own friends, his companions, nobody was admitted to see him. It was but by chance that he had counsel in the State of Massachusetts. It was simply because friends made their way, in spite of Marshall Freeman, into the court-room, and offered their services, to preserve him from the hands of the manhunters. This I am telling you as a specimen to kidnapper sovereignty over the city of Boston at the present moment.
A poor ignorant man, arrested by a lie - overawed by his master - surrounded with jailors - dragged into court at the earliest hour - about to be hurried into slavery, without friends, a moment of deliberation, or the aid of counsel - this is Boston!
. . . .
The question, to-morrow, is, fellow-citizens, whether Virginia conquers Massachusetts. - ("No." "Never.") If that man leaves the city of Boston, Massachusetts is a conquered State. There is not a State in the Union - not one, even the basest, - that would submit to have that fugitive slave leave it. New York has her Syracuse to point to, where Jerry was sent to Canada. (Loud applause) Illinois has her Chicago to point to, the home of Mr. Douglas [Senator Stephen Douglas], where she rescued a slave from his hunters; and young Wisconsin, the youthful daughter of New England, can point to the hundred men of Racine, who marched to Milwaukee, and took a slave out of the hands of the kidnappers. (Great applause.) The Buckeye State of Ohio has placed an undying star on her State arms, for she, too, has rescued a slave. And Pennsylvania, that repudiates her money debts, has more than paid the world for her repudiation, for she actually shot the slave-hunter, Gorsuch, down. (Great cheering.) I used to blush, fellow-citizens, when I thought of Pennsylvania, the land that forgot to pay its debts. But she washed it all out by the blood of the slaveholder on the soil of Pennsylvania.
. . . .
Gentlemen, when I heard of this slave case I confess I despaired. When I heard he was incarcereated in those four walls where Thomas Sims [another fugitve who had been returned] was confined, my heart sunk within me. But to-day, I went to look into his eye, a noble intelligent, honest, christian-hearted man, who, when we spoke to him of the lies in the newspapers, replied so tersely, so pithily so comprehensively- "If I wanted to go back, sir, why am I here?" I felt my courage renewed. It was a plea that none of you could resist. See to it, every man of you that loves Boston, that you watch these things so closely that you can look into that mans eyes. (Applause.) When he comes up for his trial, get a sight of him. (Great Applause.) When he comes out of his trial, get a sight of him. (Great cheering.) Wherever he stands in the streets of Boston, dont lose sight of him - I dont mean to. (Enthusiastic cheers.) I tell you, fellow citizens, there is nothing like the mute eloquence of a suffering man, to stir your hearts do your duty as children of Faneuil Hall. (Applause.) I want you to see him - every man of you. I want you to be wherever he is, and I will trust the result. (Cheers.)
. . . .
Fellow citizens, my resolution is this. . . . We have no right to say that this thing is an insult to this city of Boston. It is not. It is no insult. The quiet and tame submission of the city of Boston to the kidnapping of Thomas Sims, forfeits the right to call this an insult. My resolution is, for me, that I will try so to behave in this case, that we shall wipe off the stain of Thomas Sims, so that no kidnapper shall again dare to show his face in the city of Boston. (Cries of "Good," and cheers.) Make your resolution, as I do. See that man for yourselves; and never lose sight of him, so long as his feet rest on Massachusetts soil. Who says aye to that? (Clamorous shouts of "Aye, aye," and enthusiastic applause.)
[After the Rev. Theodore Parker delivered a speech along similar lines, Phillips again took the podium.] The Spy reported: " . . . the multitude seemed undecided how to act, when Mr. Phillops arose, and, with that matchless eloquence of his, that has given him the reputation of the first of New England orators, he calmed the excited multitude Mr. Phillips said: -
Fellow citizens; let us remember where we are, and what we are going to do. You have said, to-night, that you are going to vindicate the fair fame of Boston. You do not do it by going to groan before the Court House. ("Give them a coat of tar and feathers.") You do not do it, fellow-citizens, by attempting the impossible feat of insulting a kidnapper. (Great cheering.) . . . If there is any man here who has got an arm ready in the cause of justice; if there is any man here who is ready to sacrifice anything for the liberty of an oppressed man, he is to do it to-morrow. (Great applause.)
. . . .
I do not profess, fellow citizens, any amount of courage, but I have always professed this, and think I shall not be found wanting I trust in God I shall not be that whenever there is a fair probability of saving a slave from the hands of those who call themselves the officers of the law, by trampling under foot any statute, or any man, I will be ready to help any hundred men to do it. (Loud cheers.) What little reputation I ever had has gone long ago. (Loud cries of "No! No!") Well, then, fellow citizens, if I ever have any, I have got to win it, with you to-morrow, in open day light. We do not skulk. It is for Marshall Tukey, to skulk down State Street, between sunlight and moonlight; but when the sons of Faneuil Hall take that man out of the hands of the kidnapper, they shall do it in the face of the sun. I believe that the sympathies of the best men in the city are with us. I believe, and you will believe, even the bank vaults of State Street are ready for the rescue of Anthony Burns. Massuchusetts Spy, May 31, 1855
Stop and Consider: Phillips had to express the Faneuil Hall audience's outrage and forestall any rash action and propose some plan of action himself.
- How did he accomplish the first of these tasks? At whom did he direct the audience's anger?
- The rash action Phillips feared was that the audience might go to the Court House where Burns was being held that night and, without plan or leadership, attempt to rescue Burns. How did he seek to persuade his listeners not to attempt anything of the sort?
- What was Phillips' plan for rescuing Burns?
Phillips did not know that in the audience was a contingent from nearby Worcester, led by the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his parishioner and fellow anti-slavery activist Martin Stowell, who had decided upon their own plan of action on the train ride earlier that day. As the Spy reported:
The great majority of the audience seemed to be impressed with the force of Mr. Phillipss arguments, and the meeting was about to adjourn in quiet, when a person in the gallery cried out with a stentorian voice, "that a large body of negroes were assembled in Court Square, determined to rescue the fugitive to-night." There was an immediate rush to the door, and the crowd, without organization, without leaders, or any settled purpose, proceeded to the Court House.
Entering upon the Eastern Avenue, in the space of a minute or two, several hundred people had collected, and the officers in the building closed the doors. Presently there was a rush to the West side, and a crowd of several hundred persons was assembled upon the opposite sidewalk. Several heads appeared from the windows in the third story, from one of which two pistols were discharged in quick succession.
This seemed to exasperate the crowd most intensely, and a rush was made to the door. Finding that it would not yield readily, a piece of joist about ten feet long, seven inches wide, and two inches thick, was procured, and with it some six or eight strong men, soon battered down the door. The menials of the kidnapper, inside, all armed to the teeth, made a desperate resistance in the entry way, with clubs and cutlasses, and, just at this juncture, a dozen policemen from the Centre Watch House, arrived upon the ground, and, in a few moments arrested several persons, and took them to the Watch House. While thus engaged, several pistol shots were heard in the entry, by those outside, one of which, it was afterwards ascertained, had resulted in the death of one of the hired assassins of Liberty, in the employ of the kidnappers, named James Batchelder. As but two of the persons of the crowd had effected an entrance into the building, and these were compelled immediately to retreat by the police force outside, who arrived at the very moment the door was broken down, there is every reason to believe that Batchelder fell by the demonstration made upon the door, and there can be little doubt, that in the darkness, confusion, and terror, that prevailed inside at the time, he received the fatal shot from one of the bungling assistants of the Marshall, who report says, had been supplied with an abundance of Dutch courage [liquor] from a neighboring restorator. Massuchusetts Spy, May 31, 1854
Higginson's plan had hinged upon enough of the crowd gaining entrance into the Court House for them to overpower the "hired assassins of liberty," as the Spy referred to the Marshall and his deputies, seize Burns, and rush off with him. Instead only he and Stowell got inside. Stowell was among those arrested and subsequently charged with the murder of Batchelder. Higginson escaped and took the train back to Worcester. Would Higginson's failure also doom Phillips' plan? The Spy informed its readers:
By order of the Mayor, the Boston Artillery and the Columbian Artillery were ordered out, and about midnight they took quarters in the City Hall, where they remained during the night, waiting further orders.
A large force of officers were detailed for duty during the night, outside the Court House, and, throughout the whole evening and night, an additional strong force was inside, fully armed, and prepared for any emergency.
About midnight, a steamboat was sent to Fort Independence, with an order from the Marshal for the troops at the post to come to the city equipped for service, and at an early hour on Saturday they were marched up State Street and quartered in the upper rooms of the Court House. Orders were also sent for the marines at the navy yard to come over, and a detachment of fifty men, most of them foreigners, were marched over in obedience to the summons; and shortly after, several companies of uniformed militia appeared upon the ground, and were afterwards quartered in various places in the vicinity.
During the whole forenoon, a crowd of persons, numbering at different times from two to ten thousand persons, were assembled in the square about the Court House. No demonstration of violence were made, but several young men were arrested for making a noise and for using language calculated to excite disorder. The Mayor appeared upon the steps of the Court House, about eleven oclock, and briefly addressed the crowd. He expressed regret at the assemblage, and warned the multitude, as good and peaceable citizens, to quietly go to their own homes, at the same time adding that a sufficient force was in readiness to preserve the public peace; and that at all hazards the laws of the city, the laws of the State, and the laws of the United States should be maintained.
The Journal states that it is currently reported that a telegraphic dispatch was on Wednesday received from Washington, by the U.S. Marshall, directing him to have the fugitive slave trial put through as promptly as possible and the law carried out to the letter. Also authorizing him to call upon all the U. S. troops in the vicinity for assistance, and if needed to send to New York for reinforcements. Massuchusetts Spy, May 31, 1854
A popular engraving of the day pictured Burns looking out a Court House window at the crowd gathered to protest, ineffectually, his rendition to Virginia. [Click on the image for a larger version.] Once he had been returned, however, a group of anti-slavery activists succeeded in purchasing his freedom and bringing him to New York City. He then followed in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass and went about the North lecturing on his life in slavery, his escape, his capture and return, and his efforts to obtain a letter of dismissal in fellowship from his church in Virginia. This last was common among Baptists who wished to join a new congregation. It stipulated that the individual had been a faithful member of his previous church. Instead the Virginia congregation excommunicated Burns for the sin of stealing -- he stole himself from his master. Their letter and his reply caused a sensation throughout the North. The image at left comes from another popular illustration which told Burns' story in pictures. Click on it for the full image.
Summary: Anthony Burns came to embody the evils of slavery and the way in which the Fugitive Slave Law forced Northerners to support the South's "peculiar institution." The dramatic rescue attempt, the stirring speeches, the use of thousands of troops to accomplish his "rendition" to Virginia, all made his "kidnapping" the most famous of all the fugitive slave cases. His success as a lecturer thereafter reinforced this fame.
Reflect and Respond:
- Might Phillips' plan for rescuing Burns have succeeded? What would have had to have happened for it to have worked?
- Historians have noted the ironic outcome of the Burns' "kidnapping." Had the anti-slavery activists succeeded in rescuing him and sending him on to Canada, the event would have sharpened sectional animosities but done comparatively little to strengthen the anti-slavery cause. Failure to rescue Burns, on the other hand, made him a household word throughout the North. What specific features of his story strike you as providing ammunition for the abolitionists?
- What personal characteristics of Burns made him such an appealing figure to anti-slavery activists? Use the poster depicting his life to illustrate your answer.