A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Only the Beginning


The Fugitive Slave Law, part of the Compromise of 1850, brings the issue of slavery right into the streets of Boston. Here are two accounts of what happened to Anthony Burns, one a letter from a Boston woman writing to her father abroad, the other an engraving showing scenes from Burns's life, including his capture, trial, and subsequent events.


Selection from the Massachusetts Historical Society: Letter from Mary E. Blanchard to Benjamin Seaver, 4 June 1854. (See pp. 3-6.)
Selection from the Library of Congress: Anthony Burns. Boston: R. M. Edwards, 1855.

Questions to Consider


  1. Make a list of the things you could know about Burns's experience based only on the material in the letter. Do the same with the broadside. Without looking at any background material, make a list of questions that you now have about this incident.
  2. Now use the background material accompanying the letter, along with other sources, to answer your own questions.


  1. What makes the arrest of Burns possible in a state that has abolished slavery?
  2. Why does this episode precipitate such a major crisis in Boston?


  1. Why does Mary Blanchard write: "the last week will long be remembered as a sad one by the citizens of Boston for as the account which I commenced of the fugitive slave affair in last Sunday's letter, was only the beginning of difficulties"?
  2. Why is Burns depicted in this type of clothing in the pictures?


  1. Investigate the significance of this statement by Mary: "Many times have we rejoiced that you were not in Boston, in the capacity of Mayor." From your research, what would have been her father's situation if he had still been in that position? What could he have done, and what was he prohibited from doing?
  2. Had you been on the side of the road when Burns was marched to the wharf, would you have shouted something out to him? Why or why not? What would you have said?


  1. Using the letter as evidence, write a 150-word label for the scene called "Departure from Boston."