The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
While in Boston, Burns wrote a letter to one of his brothers, who remained enslaved in Richmond. Seeking to keep his whereabouts secret, Burns had the letter postmarked in Canada; however, he carelessly dated it at Boston. The letter was intercepted by his brother's master, who then conveyed it to Suttle.
Armed with the court document, Suttle, accompanied by William Brent, set off for Boston, where on May 24, 1854, he presented the document to Edward Greely Loring, a Massachusetts probate judge who also served as a commissioner of the local federal district court. Loring then ordered that Burns be arrested and held for a hearing to determine whether he was in fact subject to rendition under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act. That evening, federal officials seized Burns and brought him to the Boston courthouse, where he was detained until the proceedings were completed. While there, Suttle confronted him, asking why he had run away.
Burns replied, "I fell asleep on board the vessel where I worked and, before I woke up, she set sail and carried me off."
"Haven't I always treated you well, Tony?" Suttle asked. "Haven't I always given you money when you needed?"
Burns stated, "You have always given me twelve and one-half cents once a year."
Burns's responses provided Suttle with evidence that Burns recognized his master and had been enslaved to him in Virginia.
Initial Hearing and Rescue Attempt
On the morning of May 25, the federal marshal, Watson Freeman, posted armed guards to thwart any attempt to rescue Burns. Loring then convened a hearing on Suttle's rendition request. By this time, news of Burns's arrest had been widely disseminated in Boston and a number of prominent abolitionists were present in the courtroom. Burns initially suggested that he might be willing to dispense with the formalities and return immediately to Virginia with Suttle. However, after questioning by Loring, Burns decided to proceed with the hearing and be represented by the abolitionist attorney Richard Henry Dana. Loring then postponed further proceedings until May 27, in order to allow Dana an opportunity to prepare his defense. After the hearing reconvened briefly on May 27, Dana requested more time to prepare the case, and Loring once again postponed the hearing until May 29.
By the time that the rendition proceeding reconvened on the morning of May 29, the authorities had taken a variety of steps to guard against any further efforts to rescue Burns. The force protecting the courthouse had been buttressed by hundreds of military men, and armed guards had also been posted in the courtroom itself. William Brent was the first witness called by Seth Thomas, the attorney representing Charles Suttle. Brent described his relationship with Burns and also gave a detailed description of the escaped slave. Over the objection of Burns's attorneys, Brent then recounted the conversation that had taken place between Burns and Suttle at the courthouse on the evening of May 24. Thomas called another witness who testified that he had overheard the same conversation and corroborated Brent's account.
Loring took the Burns case under advisement after the conclusion of testimony on May 30, and issued his decision on June 1. In an opinion accompanying, Loring gave relatively short shrift to the constitutional arguments against the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, noting that many of those arguments had already been rejected by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. He also firmly rejected the contention that he should refuse to enforce the statute simply because it was fundamentally immoral.
The Anthony Burns affair created dissatisfaction among people on both sides of the sectional divide. Antislavery northerners were obviously dismayed by the successful enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. Still, they counted as a success state and federal prosecutors' inability to bring to justice any of those involved in James Batchelder's death. For many southerners, on the other hand, the violent resistance to the rendition of Burns was a tangible example of what they saw as the refusal of many northerners to respect what southerners saw as their rights. Thus, for example, the Richmond Examiner declared that "such an execution of the Fugitive Slave law as that which we witness in Boston is a mockery and an insult [and must] awaken the South to a sense of its position and the necessity of an independent and exclusive policy … A few more such victories, and the South is undone." In short, the dispute over the rendition of Anthony Burns was an important signpost on the road to the American Civil War (1861–1865).
August 28, 1787 - At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pierce Butler and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina move to require "fugitive slaves and servants to be delivered up like criminals." The motion is adopted the next day.
September 15, 1787 - The wording of the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution is finalized, apparently without dissent.
February 12, 1793 - President George Washington signs into law the Fugitive Slave Act. It allows slaveowners to seize and arrest fugitive slaves and present written or oral proof to an official in order to reclaim their property.
September 18, 1850 - President Millard Fillmore signs the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850. It expands the number of federal officials empowered to act as commissioners for the purposes of hearing fugitive-slave cases.
October 25, 1850 - Warrants are issued in Boston, Massachusetts, for the arrest of fugitive slaves William and Ellen Craft.
November 1, 1850 - After receiving threats from Boston's antislavery community on October 30, William H. Hughes, a jailer from Macon, Georgia, leaves town without the fugitive slaves William and Ellen Craft.
February 15, 1851, 11:30 a.m. - Deputy federal marshals arrest the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins at his place of employment, the Cornhill Coffee House in Boston, Massachusetts.
April 3, 1851 - Thomas Sims, an escaped slave from Savannah, Georgia, is arrested in Boston, Massachusetts, about a month after his arrival.
April 11, 1851 - A court in Boston, Massachusetts, issues a certificate of removal, allowing for Thomas Sims, an escaped slave from Savannah, Georgia, to be returned to his owner.
February–March 1854 - Around this time, the slave Anthony Burns secretly travels from Richmond to Boston with the assistance of friends and mariners from the North whom he met in Richmond.
May 16, 1854 - The state circuit court for Alexandria County produces a transcript describing the runaway slave Anthony Burns and declaring that Charles F. Suttle has provided "satisfactory proof" that he owns Burns.
May 24, 1854 - Anthony Burns, a runaway slave from Stafford County, is arrested in Boston under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850).
May 25, 1854 - Judge Edward Greely Loring presides over an initial hearing in the case against the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston, Massachusetts. Burns agrees to representation, and Loring postpones further proceedings until May 27.
May 26, 1854 - Antislavery activists in Boston, Massachusetts, storm the courthouse in an attempt to free from federal custody the fugitive slave Anthony Burns. The attempt fails and results in the death of James Batchelder, a temporary deputy U.S. marshal.
May 27, 1854 - Judge Edward Greely Loring presides over an initial hearing in the case against the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston, Massachusetts. At the request of Burns's attorneys, he postpones further proceedings until May 29.
May 29-May 30, 1854 - Attorneys present their witnesses in the case against the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston, Massachusetts.
June 1, 1854 - Judge Edward Greely Loring issues a decision in favor of Anthony Burns's owner, authorizing him to transport the fugitive slave back to Virginia.
July 27, 1862 - Anthony Burns dies of consumption in Saint Catharines, Upper Canada (later Ontario), never having regained his health after being incarcerated for running away to Boston in 1854.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Maltz, E. The Trial of Anthony Burns (1854). (2019, November 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Burns_Anthony_The_Trial_of_1854.
- MLA Citation:
Maltz, Earl. "The Trial of Anthony Burns (1854)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 20 Nov. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: December 14, 2012 | Last modified: November 20, 2019
Contributed by Earl Maltz, distinguished professor of law at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, New Jersey.