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.
With the evidence of Burns's location in hand, Suttle first asserted his claim to recover the erstwhile slave in the state circuit court for Alexandria County, Virginia. On May 16, the court produced a transcript describing Burns and declaring that Suttle had provided "satisfactory proof" that Burns did in fact owe service to Suttle. By obtaining this order, Suttle hoped to put himself in position to take advantage of section 10 of the Fugitive Slave Act, which provided that in a proceeding seeking the rendition of an alleged escaped slave, such a transcript would be "full and conclusive evidence of the fact of escape, and that the service or labor of the person escaping is due to the party in such record mentioned."
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
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.
Dana and co-counsel Charles M. Ellis made a variety of arguments on behalf of Burns. First, they contended that the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional, asserting that the statute unconstitutionally delegated the judicial function to officials who did not have the qualifications required for judges, denied alleged fugitives the right to jury trial, and violated both the search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. In addition, claiming that their client was not the person who had escaped from enslavement in Virginia, they called a number of witnesses who testified that they had seen Burns in Boston before the date on which Brent said that Burns had escaped. Dana also suggested that Brent's testimony had been influenced by the notoriety that the Burns case had received in Virginia and a desire to vindicate southern outrage at what slaveholders saw as the unwillingness of northern states to fulfill their constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves.
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).
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.
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.
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.
May 29-May 30, 1854 - Attorneys present their witnesses in the case against the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston, Massachusetts.
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). (2013, November 21). 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 Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Nov. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: December 14, 2012 | Last modified: November 21, 2013
Contributed by Earl Maltz, distinguished professor of law at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, New Jersey.