|Anthony Burns drawn by Barry from |
a daguerreotype by Whipple & Black;
John Andrews, sc. Source: Library of Congress
The Constitution itself provided provision for the return of fugitive slaves in Article IV, section 2. In 1793, Congress turned this provision into law with its first fugitive slave law. Yet growing anti-slavery sentiment in the North led some states to pass personal liberty laws designed to distance their relationship from slavery. In 1826 Pennsylvania passed such a law forbidding state authorities from aiding the capture and return of runaway slaves. The law walked a fine line - it did not subvert the Constitution because it did not prevent federal authorities from seeking out and returning slaves; only state authorities.Nevertheless, the law was struck by the Supreme Court in Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842.
Despite the decision, increasing Abolitionist agitation brought about the passage of stronger personal liberty laws in Massachusetts and Vermont in 1843, New Hampshire in 1846, Pennsylvania in 1847, and Rhode Island in 1848. As part of the Compromise of 1850, however, Congress passed a stricter fugitive slave act. This new law compelled northerners to participate in the recovery of fugitive slaves, threatening heavy fines or imprisonment. Stiff penalties were also set for those individuals found to have assisted fugitive slaves in their escape. The act crystallized northern opposition to slavery, as it seemingly forced their participation in maintaining the inhumane institution. Opposition to the law reached its zenith in the city of Boston in May of 1854, when a Virginia merchant by the name of Charles F. Suttle sought to recover his runaway slave, Anthony Burns.
Working on the wharfs in Richmond Virginia, Burns had managed to board a ship bound for Boston earlier that year. To recover Burns, federal marshals worked with local law enforcement to first arrest the fugitive on fabricated robbery charges. When local abolitionists learned of Burns's incarceration and impending deportation back to slavery, they organized resistance. 5,000 citizens gathered at Faneuil Hall to protest, while a smaller group of black and white abolitionists, led by the minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, made plans to storm the court house and free Burns. Armed with axes and a battering ram, they breached the heavy doors of the court house, and a melee ensued, during which one defender was stabbed and killed. The abolitionists failed to reach and free Burns.
To enforce the law, local militia were called out, and two companies of U.S. marines were sent to Boston by President Franklin Pierce. One week later, hundreds of federal troops escorted Burns back to slavery. As the rendition took place, some 50,000 Bostonians turned out in the streets to witness the sad scene. As historian Manisha Sinha has recently described it, "Buildings were draped in black, American flags were outlined in black, and a coffin with the word Liberty on it was displayed."
One witness to the events wrote: "When it was all over and I was alone in my office, I put my hands in my face and wept. I could do nothing less."
Sources / Further Reading
Hall, Kermit L. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Sinha, Manisha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005.