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Anthony Burns: Escaping the Fugitive Slave Law



Anthony Burns was born on May 31, 1834 as a slave in Stafford County, Virginia. He was taught to read and write at an early age and as a result, Burns became a Baptist "slave preacher," serving at the Falmouth Union Church in Virginia. Working as a slave in an urban environment, Burns had some privileges and was able to hire himself out. It was the freedom that Burns experienced that led him to runaway in 1854. He even once said, "there [was] a Christ who came to make us free" and felt "the necessity for freedom of soul and body." And while working in Richmond, Burns got on a ship headed to Boston.

A Fugitive

On March 4, 1854, Anthony Burns arrived in Boston as a fugitive but ready to live as a free man. Soon after arriving in Boston, Burns wrote a letter to his brother. Although the letter was sent through Canada, Burns' former owner, Charles Suttle, realized that the letter had been sent by Burns. And as a result, Suttle used the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to bring Burns back to Virginia.

Suttle came to Boston to reclaim Burns as his property. On May 24, Burns was arrested while working on Court Street in Boston. Abolitionists throughout Boston protested against Burns' arrest and made several attempts to free him. However, President Franklin Pierce decided to set an example through the Burns' case--he wanted abolitionists and fugitive slaves to know that the Fugitive Slave Law would be enforced.

Two days later, African-American and white abolitionists crowded around the courthouse, determined to set Burns free. During the struggle, Deputy U.S. Marshal James Batchelder was stabbed, making him the second Marshall to die in the line of duty. As the protest grew stronger, the federal government sent United States troop members. It is estimated that Burns court costs and capturing was more than $40,000.

Trial and Aftermath

Burns was represented by Richard Henry Dana Jr. and Robert Morris Sr. . However, since the Fugitive Slave Law was very clear, Burns' case was a mere formality and the ruling was made against Burns. Burns was remanded to Suttle and Judge Edward G. Loring ordered that he be sent back to Alexandria, Va.

Boston was under martial law until later in the afternoon of May 26. The streets near the courthouse and harbor were filled with federal troops as well as protesters.

On June 2, Burns boarded a ship that would take him back to Virginia.

In response to Burns' ruling, abolitionists formed organizations such as the Anti-Man Hunting League. William Lloyd Garrison destroyed copies of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Burns court case and the Constitution. The Vigilance Committee lobbied for the removal of Edward G. Loring in 1857. As a result of the Burns' case, abolitionist Amos Adams Lawrence said, "we went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists."

Another Chance at Freedom

Not only did the abolitionist community continue to protest following Burns' return to enslavement. The abolition community in Boston raised $1200 to purchase Burns' freedom. At first, Suttle refused and sold Burns for $905 to David McDaniel from Rocky Mount, NC. Soon after, Leonard A. Grimes purchased Burns' freedom for $1300. Burns returned to live in Boston. While living in Boston, Burns wrote an autobiography of his experiences. With the proceeds of the book, Burns decided to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. Once he finished, Burns moved to Canada and worked as a Baptist pastor for several years before his death in 1862. 

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