The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
The Fugitive Slave Act, signed into law by President Millard Fillmore on September 18, 1850, was designed to improve the ability of enslavers to recover enslaved people who had fled to the safety of free states. A revision of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, the law expanded the number of federal officials empowered to act as commissioners for the purpose of issuing certificates of removal. It also charged those officials with hearing claims from putative masters “in a summary manner.” In order to prove ownership of an enslaved fugitive, a claimant was required to submit either a sworn statement or a document certifying that appropriate testimony had been given to an official in the state from which the alleged escape had occurred. Once this evidence had been provided, the federal commissioner was required to issue a certificate of removal, allowing the owner to transport his enslaved laborer home.
The Fugitive Slave Act was part of the Compromise of 1850, a series of laws designed to end, or at least postpone, sectional strife that many believed might lead to civil war. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates likely believed that the Fugitive Slave Clause was crucial in a union between slave and free states. While southerners generally believed that the new Fugitive Slave Act was the linchpin of the entire compromise, some worried that the law would prove to be unenforceable in the North. In fact, the results were mixed in the abolitionist hotbed of Boston. Vigilance committees, charged with undermining attempts to apply the law, sprang up and were able to foil attempts to reclaim the well-known fugitives Ellen and William Craft in 1850. Later the same year, an armed crowd stormed the courthouse in Boston and rescued Shadrach Minkins, who had self-emancipated from Norfolk. As a result of the Minkins rescue, Boston officials increased security and were able to prevent a similar attempt to free Thomas Sims, who had escaped from Georgia and was arrested in 1851. These incidents formed the backdrop for the effort to invoke the Fugitive Slave Act against Anthony Burns in 1854.
Burns had been enslaved to Charles F. Suttle, a shopkeeper and sheriff in Alexandria who also served a term in the General Assembly (1849–1850). Suttle appointed William Brent of Falmouth for the purpose of hiring Burns out to others in Richmond. Early in 1854, Burns had been hired out to a Richmond pharmacist named Millspaugh. Finding that he had insufficient work to keep Burns fully occupied, Millspaugh entered into an illegal arrangement with Burns whereby the enslaved man was allowed to work for others in return for paying Millspaugh a percentage of his earnings. After using his relative freedom to save money and make contacts, Burns stowed away on a ship bound for Boston early in February 1854. After arriving in Boston, he worked as a cook and a window-cleaner before finding long-term employment in a clothing store.
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 enslaver, who then conveyed it to Suttle.
With the evidence of Burns’s location in hand, Suttle first asserted his claim to recover Burns 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 a 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 enslaved person, 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.”
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 enslaver 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.
In the interim, the abolitionist community in Boston made strenuous efforts to derail the effort to enforce the Fugitive Slave Clause. The Boston Vigilance Committee arranged to hold a mass protest meeting in Faneuil Hall at seven o’clock on the evening of May 26, but the activists were split between those who preferred violent action and those who wished to remain peaceful. About thirty supporters of the former convened separately and elected the minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson as their leader. Higginson gathered axes and other weapons and arranged for public sentiment to be whipped up using broadsides and, once the evening meeting started, inflammatory language. When a Higginson confederate shouted that “a large body of negroes were assembled at Court Square, determined to rescue the fugitive tonight,” the crowd left Faneuil Hall and charged the courthouse. A battering ram breached the courthouse doorway and the ensuing scuffle killed twenty-four-year-old James Batchelder, who was serving as a temporary deputy federal marshal. The attackers retreated and Burns remained in federal custody.
The press immediately reacted to Batchelder’s death. The conservative Boston Journal decried the mob’s actions, writing that if Higginson and his cohorts were not brought to justice, “then indeed will a blot rest upon the fair fame of our city.” In contrast, the abolitionist National Era declared that the escape attempt “ha[d] its roots in the noblest feelings of the human heart.” Meanwhile, Leonard A. Grimes, a Baptist minister born free in Virginia, worked behind the scenes to raise funds to purchase Burns’s freedom. Although Suttle initially indicated that he would be receptive to the idea of selling Burns, he ultimately refused. With national attention focused on his claim, he would not entertain any offers until it had been properly adjudicated under the Fugitive Slave Act.
By the time 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. 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 enslaved man. 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 a 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 enslaver saw as the unwillingness of northern states to fulfill their constitutional obligation to return enslaved fugitives.
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.
For Loring, the central question in the case was whether Burns was in fact the man who had escaped from enslavement in Virginia. Faced with conflicting testimony on this point, Loring decided that the most persuasive evidence was the conversation that Burns had had with Suttle at the courthouse on the evening of May 24. Thus, Loring concluded that Burns was in fact a fugitive enslaved person and ordered him remanded to Suttle’s custody. The same day, a heavily armed contingent of soldiers escorted Burns through the streets of Boston to the Morris, shio belonging to the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service that had been dispatched to Boston Harbor in anticipation of Loring’s decision. The Morris then transported Burns to Norfolk.
After arriving in Norfolk, Burns was sold for $905 to David McDaniel, a slave trader who owned a plantation in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Martin in turn agreed to allow Leonard Grimes to purchase Burns’s freedom for $1,300, and the fomerly enslaved man returned to Boston in 1855. After spending some time touring the North and telling his story, Burns studied for the ministry and ultimately became the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Saint Catharines, Canada West (later Ontario), where he lived until his death in 1862.
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 Burns was an important signpost on the road to the American Civil War (1861–1865).