A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

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 sale and trade of enslaved people (although not slavery itself) was outlawed in the District of Columbia; and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was strengthened to devastating effect.

Freedom seekers were no longer entitled to due process or trial and could be captured solely on an enslaver’s word. Officials who refused to cooperate with the return of freedom seekers could be fined and imprisoned. Although Massachusetts had a personal liberty law—the “Latimer Law”—to protect freedom seekers, 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 freedom seeker, Thomas Sims, was captured and returned to Georgia. Three years later, the rendition of Anthony Burns, a freedom seeker 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 enslavement.

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 Anthony Burns offer visceral insights into this period of our history.

Our Motto Liberty a trust to be transmitted..., antislavery banner
Canvas, oil paint, metal grommets by unknown, 1860s?
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.

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