A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Resisting the Fugitive Slave Law

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, part of the Missouri Compromise of 1850, left it to federal magistrates to determine whether slaves who had escaped to free states should be returned to bondage. 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 to Posterity
Oil paint on canvas, [1840s]
Billy clubs
Wood, circa 1845
Billy club
Wood, lead, circa 1845
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 ...
Ink on paper by Henry I. Bowditch, circa 1854-1859
Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns
Check in the amount of $676, used for the purchase of Anthony Burns, 1855
Issued by City Bank, Boston, 22 February 1855
Check in the amount of $624, used for the purchase of Anthony Burns, 1855
Issued by City Bank, Boston, 22 February 1855


Exhibition: 22 February - 24 May 2013

"'Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land': Boston Abolitionists, 1831-1865" displays many important manuscripts, photographs, and artifacts from the Society's collections that relate to the Abolitionist movement in Boston. Visitors can view such items as the imposing table for The Liberator, which has not been on display in the Society's building for many years. The exhibit is open Monday through Saturday, 10 AM to 4 PM.

Additional Online Resource

The Case for Ending Slavery features curricular resources and more than 50 primary sources from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Library of Congress that reveal how slavery, and debates about slavery, contributed to the formation of the United States.