Resisting the Fugitive Slave Law
In September of 1850, Congress passed five bills known collectively as the Compromise of 1850 in an attempt to defuse North-South tensions over slavery. As a result of the bills’ passage, California entered the Union as a free state, New Mexico and Utah territories were established with the question of slavery left to popular sovereignty; the borders of Texas were set; the slave trade (although not slavery itself) was outlawed in the District of Columbia; and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was strengthened to devastating effect.
Fugitive slaves were no longer entitled to due process or trial and could be captured solely on a slaveowner’s word. Officials who refused to cooperate with the return of runaway slaves could be fined and imprisoned. Although Massachusetts had a personal liberty law—the “Latimer Law”—to protect runaway slaves, black and white abolitionists also formed the Boston Vigilance Committee and the secret Anti-Man-Hunting League to resist enforcement of the federal law. There were early successes as well as failures. In 1851, abolitionists liberated Shadrach Minkins from the Boston courthouse and conveyed him to freedom in Canada, but another fugitive, Thomas Sims, was captured and returned to Georgia. Three years later, the rendition of Anthony Burns, a fugitive from Virginia, galvanized Boston. After a failed rescue attempt, thousands witnessed the “vile procession” of federal troops and marshals that conducted Burns to the waterfront and by U.S. revenue cutter back to slavery.
The artifacts and documents below illustrate the varied means by which abolitionists challenged slavery in the 1840s and 1850s. The billy clubs, the diagram of how to surround a slave-hunter, and the checks written to free the slave Anthony Burns offer visceral insights into this period of our history.
Our Motto Liberty a trust to be transmitted..., antislavery banner
Letter from Mary E. Blanchard to Benjamin Seaver, 4 June 1854
No Slavery! Fourth of July! The Managers of the Mass. Anti-Slavery Soc'y ... ...
Diagram to show the drill the Anti-Man-Hunting League had for the running off ...
Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns
Check in the amount of $676, used for the purchase of Anthony Burns, 1855
Check in the amount of $624, used for the purchase of Anthony Burns, 1855