Online: Object of the Month


"Only the Beginning of Difficulties": The Trial and Rendition of Anthony Burns

Susan Martin
Manuscript Processor and EAD Coordinator

Letter from Mary E. Blanchard to Benjamin Seaver, 4 June 1854

Page Viewing Options NOTE

Jump:
overview | small | large | transcription HELP

Request this image

Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.

In this letter, dated 4 June 1854, Mary Elizabeth (Seaver) Blanchard of Boston writes to her father, Benjamin Seaver, who was traveling in Europe, having recently finished his term as mayor of Boston. In addition to updating him on various family matters, Mary describes the tumultuous scene in Boston during the trial and return to slavery of Anthony Burns. This letter is part of a fascinating collection of Seaver family letters recently purchased by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act was, to abolitionists, one of the most odious provisions of the Compromise of 1850. The law allowed federal agents to arrest a fugitive slave, even in a free state, and return the slave to his or her owner. In May 1854, 20-year-old Anthony Burns, an escaped slave from Virginia living in Boston, was arrested and tried under the Fugitive Slave Act. After a "trial"--in reality an administrative hearing with severely limited rights for the defendant--that lasted only three days, Massachusetts Probate Court Judge Edward G. Loring, in his capacity as a federal Fugitive Slave Law commissioner, ruled that Burns must be returned to his master, Charles F. Suttle. The case consumed the city and had lasting consequences for the slavery debate in the United States.

The second of June was the day set for Burns' return to the South. On that day, an estimated 50,000 people gathered in Court Square and along State Street between the courthouse and Boston Harbor to protest his extradition. A phalanx of U.S. marshals, soldiers, and marines, reinforced by Massachusetts militia, and 200 volunteers, who were described by Mary Seaver as "all the worst blacklegs and pimps of the city," escorted the recaptured slave from the courthouse to T Wharf, approximately half a mile away, where a boat waited to carry him out to a U.S. revenue cutter in the harbor that would take him back to Virginia. Burns' defense attorney, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., called it a "vile procession." As Burns passed, the crowds lining the streets booed, hissed, and shouted in protest. Businesses along State Street closed for the day, and buildings were draped with black fabric. One group of protestors inscribed a large black coffin with the word "Liberty," and another flew the American flag upside down.

The "Vile Procession"

The Seavers were fervent abolitionists and Mary's letter to her father is a profound and emotional description of the Anthony Burns trial and its aftermath. The case sent Boston into a tailspin, and newspapers, broadsides, and speeches were filled with denunciations of Judge/Commissioner Loring, Burns' owner Suttle, Mayor Jerome Van Crowninshield Smith, Major-General Benjamin Franklin Edmands (commander of the militia), U.S. Marshal Watson Freeman, and President Franklin Pierce. See online presentations of broadsides denouncing Burns' rendition: The Man is Not Bought! and Murderers, Thieves and Blacklegs Employed by Marshall Freeman. Anticipating further trouble after a riot at the courthouse on 26 May in which a deputy marshal had been killed, Mayor Smith issued a warning to the citizens of Boston and instituted martial law to preserve order.

The spectacle of Anthony Burns' rendition made a deep and lasting impression on all who witnessed it. Other men and women in Boston that day wrote similar accounts and described feelings of anger, disgust, and sadness. Horace Howard Furness, a 20-year-old Harvard student, watched with an "excited state of mind" from the Commonwealth Building on the corner of State and Washington Streets, near the Old State House. Also observing from the Commonwealth Building was Martha Russell, who asked: "Did you ever feel every drop of blood in you boiling and seething, throbbing and burning, until it seemed you should suffocate?" As Mary wrote to her father: "I do not know the time when there has been so much excitement, almost all are unanimous in feelings of indignation, and mortification, and humiliation."

Burns' Legacy

Anthony Burns' route took him past some of the chief scenes of American history. Just steps away from the courthouse, Crispus Attucks--perhaps also a fugitive slave--had been among those killed by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence had been read from the balcony of the Old State House. Memories of Boston's significant role in the colonial struggle against British rule made the events of that week even more intolerable to the city's abolitionists. In his speech on 26 May, Rev. Theodore Parker said, "There is no Boston to-day. There was a Boston once. Now, there is a north suburb to the city of Alexandria; that is what Boston is. And you and I, fellow-subjects of the State of Virginia."

Mary Blanchard believed that the week of the Anthony Burns trial would "long be remembered as a sad one by the citizens of Boston." However, the case resuscitated abolitionist sentiment in the North and spurred efforts to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act. As Mary's brother Frank explained in a letter from the same collection: "The fact is Massachusetts was stirred to its very heart's core & there is the most wonderful change in public sentiment on the subject of slavery there, & everywhere at the North."

Less than a year after the trial, a group of northern abolitionists purchased Anthony Burns' freedom for $1,300, and he returned to Boston as a free man. See an online presentation of the checks used to purchase his freedom. The same year, the rising political power of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts would lead to the enactment of state personal liberty law that made it all-but impossible to enforce the federal Fugitive Slave Act in the Commonwealth, and after several attempts by the now firmly-antislavery legislature, Edward Loring was removed from his Massachusetts judgeship in 1858.

Letters to Benjamin Seaver

Benjamin Seaver served as the thirteenth mayor of Boston from 1852 to 1853. Upon the election of his successor, Jerome Van Crowninshield Smith of the American (or "Know Nothing") Party, Seaver took a six-month trip to Europe, embarking in January 1854. During his travels, his children--Benjamin Francis "Frank" Seaver, Mary Elizabeth (Seaver) Blanchard, and Charles Milton Seaver--wrote to him frequently about family matters and political events back in the states. Their letters comprise a record of most major political issues of the day, including the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Missouri Compromise, slavery and abolition, Know-Nothings, anti-Catholicism, temperance, and the Crimean War.

Sources for Further Reading

Adams, Charles Francis. Richard Henry Dana: A Biography. Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1890.

The Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns. Boston: Fetridge and Co., 1854.

Furness, Horace Howard. The Letters of Horace Howard Furness. Ed. Horace Howard Furness Jayne. Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.

The Ruffin Society. "Slavery and the 'Trial' of Anthony Burns." Long Road to Justice: The African American Experience in the Massachusetts Courts. (Website currently hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

Stevens, Charles Emery. Anthony Burns: A History. Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1856.

"The Trial of Anthony Burns for Escaping from Slavery, Boston, Massachusetts, 1854." American State Trials. Ed. John D. Lawson. Vol. 5. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1972. 645-709.

Von Frank, Albert J. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.