Drawn from MHS collections, our primary source sets promote learning in U.S. history and civics and are supported by teaching activities and guiding questions.


Anthony Burns and the Fugitive Slave Act

Students will trace Anthony Burns’ journey to freedom, and the growth of abolitionism in 1850s Boston, using broadsides, letters, and artifacts.

Inquiry Question 1: What was the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act on freedom seekers?

Inquiry Question 2: Who resisted the law, and how?

    Source Set

    Download Source Set


    a sheet of paper with information printed on one or both sides that is meant to be shared publicly

    the freeing of someone from slavery

    a person who has escaped from a place, or is in hiding

    Fugitive Slave Act of 1850:
    Part of the Compromise of 1850, this federal statute required that any enslaved person who escaped slavery be returned to their enslaver, and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in their return to slavery

    Someone who bought and owned other people as their property


    Analyzing Primary Sources

    As you read these documents, consider:

    What type of primary source is this?

    Who created it?

    When was it created?

    Who was involved?

    • How did Anthony Burns' actions help him become free?
    • Who helped him? How?
    • Who harmed him? How?

    What is the purpose of this source?

    This broadside pleads for the rescue of Anthony Burns. In 1854, twenty-year-old Anthony Burns liberated himself from slavery in Virginia and escaped to Boston. A slave catcher working for Charles Suttle, Burns' enslaver, captured and arrested him. Boston citizens tried, but failed, to buy his freedom and Burns remained in Boston's courthouse jail.

    Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, enslavers and slave catchers were legally allowed to enter free states and force enslaved people who had escaped back into slavery.

    Citation: The Man is Not Bought! He is Still in the Slave Pen in the Court House!, [Boston?: 1854], Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/1667.

    While Anthony Burns remained in jail, mainly Black abolitionists, led by Lewis Hayden, tried to rescue him from the courthouse where he was held. They were not successful.

    During the “Boston Slave Riot” that followed, James Batchelder was killed. Batchelder was a deputy marshal; the job of a deputy marshal is to enforce the laws of the United States. 

    In his trial, Burns had two lawyers: Robert Morris, a Black abolitionist, and Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a white abolitionist. However, Judge Loring decided in favor of Charles Suttle, Burns’ enslaver, and ordered Burns be put on a ship and returned to slavery in Virginia.

    The pamphlet can be read in its entirety at the Library of Congress here.

    Citation: Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns, Boston: Fetridge and Company, 1854, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/2458.

    In this letter, dated 4 June 1854, Mary Elizabeth Blanchard of Boston writes to her father Benjamin Seaver, who was traveling in Europe. Seaver was the former Mayor of Boston.

    On pages 3-6, Blanchard describes the crowded and angry scene in Boston following Anthony Burns’ trial. More than 50,000 people gathered to witness and protest as police officers and federal troops forcibly returned Burns to slavery. At the time, about 137,000 people lived in Boston.

    Citation: Letter from Mary E. Blanchard to Benjamin Seaver, 4 June 1854, From Letters to Benjamin Seaver, Massachusetts Historical Society,  https://www.masshist.org/database/1999.

    Read the full transcript.

    Read a simplified version.

    In this letter, Burns writes to his former lawyer Richard Henry Dana, Jr. from jail in Richmond, Virginia, and urges his Massachusetts supporters to buy his freedom. 

    In the excerpt quoted here, spelling and punctuation have been standardized. To read a full transcript, or to hear the letter read aloud, click on the link above and then click on the “Listen” icon partway down the page.

    Citation: Letter from Anthony Burns to Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 23 August 1854, in Dana Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society http://www.longroadtojustice.org/topics/slavery/anthony-burns.php

    In August 1854, Anthony Burns wrote to Richard Henry Dana, Jr., asking supporters in Boston to buy his freedom. Six months later, the Reverend Leonard Grimes, a Black Baptist minister in Boston, used two checks totaling $1,300 to purchase Anthony Burns' freedom. 

    The check seen here was written out for $676. At the bottom of the check the following is written: “This check for $676 and the other for $624, were used in the purchase of Anthony Burns out of slavery. I advanced the money to pay for the check of $624. Attest. Cha[rle]s. C. Barry”.

    The second check Reverend Grimes used to buy Burns' freedom can be viewed here.

    Citation: Check in the amount of $676, used for the purchase of Anthony Burns, 1855, Issued by City Bank, Boston, 22 February 1855, from the Charles Cushing Barry papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/2455

    Read a simplified version of the letter.

    As a free man, Burns moves back to Boston and then to Ohio to study for the ministry at Oberlin College. On 9 July 1859, he writes again to Richard Henry Dana, Jr. In the letter, Burns describes a visit from his brother who had recently bought his own freedom; discusses his reasons for not celebrating the fourth of July; and asks Dana for help withdrawing money from his bank account.

    Citation: Letter from Anthony Burns to Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 9 July 1859, from the Dana Family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society,  https://www.masshist.org/database/2499

    In 1851, Black abolitionists had used direct action to free Shadrach Minkins, another fugitive slave, from a Boston jail after slave catchers arrested him. They tried but failed to free a man named Thomas Sims, and in 1854, Anthony Burns. Immediately following Burns’ trial, a group of white abolitionists, including the minister Theodore Parker, founded a secret group called the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League, to resist the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. In the preamble to the League’s Constitution, members agreed to “use all proper means for rendering difficult or impossible, the coming or the remaining of the man-hunter amongst us.”

    This diagram shows how members of the League proposed to arrange themselves in order to surround a slave hunter (SH). Six members of the League would take hold of his head, arms, and feet, and twelve more members would form a circle around them to prevent anyone from helping the slave hunter. The idea was to cause enough trouble for the slave hunter that no others would try coming to Boston to kidnap any other fugitive slaves.  

    The Anti-Man-Hunting League held meetings from 1854-56 but never put its plan into action. Following Anthony Burns’ case, Massachusetts passed a Personal Liberty Bill (1855) that protected fugitive slaves and made it illegal for state officials like police officers to arrest them. Burns’ case was the last time the Fugitive Slave Act was ever enforced in Massachusetts.

    (Quotes From the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League records)

    Citation: Diagram to show the drill the Anti-Man-Hunting League had for the running off of a slave or man-hunter, Henry I. Bowditch, circa 1854-1859, From the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League records, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/1668.
    For Teachers
    Grade Span

    Historical Overview

    Brief Bios Key people in Burns' case

    Adapted Documents Simplified versions and excerpts of Burns' and Blanchard's letters

    Worksheets for note-taking and suggested activities


    Anthony Burns and the Fugitive Slave Act

    Background Reading

    Historical Overview: Boston and the Fugitive Slave Act

    Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

    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 Washington, D.C. ; and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was strengthened to devastating effect.

    In the revised Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, freedom seekers (fugitive slaves) 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 passed a personal liberty law in 1843—known as the “Latimer Law”—to protect freedom seekers, Black and white abolitionists also formed the Boston Vigilance Committee to resist enforcement of the federal law.

    The Vigilance Committee

    The Vigilance Committee was the organizing force behind the Underground Railroad in Boston. Committee members housed, fed, and clothed fugitive slaves. They and supporters donated money to pay for these costs, and for fugitives’ passage to free countries like Canada and England. The Committee also printed anti-slavery broadsides to post around the city. While the Committee was interracial, Black abolitionists—led by the Lewis Hayden and William Cooper Nell—were far more likely to house freedom seekers and use direct action to protect them than their white counterparts. Hayden, who owned a used clothing store and operated a boarding house with his wife, Harriet, led many of these efforts. There were early successes as well as failures. In 1851, Black abolitionists liberated Shadrach Minkins from the Boston courthouse and conveyed him to freedom in Canada, but another freedom seeker, Thomas Sims, was captured and forcibly returned to Georgia. Three years later, the rendition of Anthony Burns, a freedom seeker from Virginia, galvanized the entire city of Boston.

    Anthony Burns

    In March 1854, Anthony Burns self-liberated (freed himself) from enslavement in Virginia. By ship, he escaped to Boston. On May 24, a federal marshal seized Burns, who was on his way home from work, for the made-up charge of robbery. The marshal–called a slave catcher and kidnapper by abolitionists–acted on behalf of Charles Suttle, Burns’ enslaver. Using the Fugitive Slave Law, the government detained Burns in the Boston courthouse. Burns’ arrest elicited intense outrage in Massachusetts. Black abolitionists, led by Hayden, stormed the courthouse where he was being held in a failed attempt to free him. Later, African American attorney Robert Morris and white lawyer Richard Henry Dana Jr. defended Burns in court, but the judge sided with Burns’ enslaver. The government called in federal troops to return Burns to slavery.

    Thousands witnessed the “vile procession” of federal troops and marshals that marched Burns to the waterfront and by U.S. revenue cutter (an armed government ship) back to enslavement. Over 50,000 people lined the route between the courthouse and Long Wharf in protest; every street was draped in black, and flags were hanging upside-down. Burns’ however, persisted in his efforts to secure his own freedom. His enslaver, Charles Suttle, had him committed to jail in Virginia. From there, Burns wrote to one of his former lawyers in Boston, asking him and other supporters to purchase his freedom. 

    Some abolitionists resisted the idea of compensated emancipation—believing that purchasing a person’s freedom made them complicit in the system of slavery, despite the positive result for the person(s) it freed. Others, however, thought the result was most important. Leonard Grimes, the Black minister of Boston’s Twelfth Baptist Church, raised money and then traveled to Virginia to purchase Burns’ freedom. From there, Burns returned to Boston and later enrolled in the theological seminary at Ohio’s Oberlin College. He maintained ties with friends in Boston, but moved to Ontario, Canada to be a minister. He died from tuberculosis in 1862.

    Burns’ Lasting Impact on MA

    Burns' case was the last time that the Fugitive Slave Act was ever successfully enforced in Massachusetts. Of course, that was not immediately obvious to abolitionists. Following their failure to keep Burns from being sent back to Virginia, abolitionists formed the secret Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League. Their larger objective was to increase public opinion against the Fugitive Slave Act and slavery itself. Their short-term goals were to make it impossible for slave hunters to catch and arrest fugitive slaves in the city. Although they prepared themselves for direct conflict with slave hunters none ever came to pass. In 1855, after the massive public outcry following Burns’ rendition to slavery, Massachusetts passed the Personal Liberty Act. Stronger than the Latimer Law, this bill punished state officials (including judges, sheriffs, police officers, and the militia) for aiding enslavers and/or apprehending fugitives in the state.


    Close Reading Questions

    Document-specific questions

    For each document, choose a few of these questions to discuss with students.

    Document 1. The Man is Not Bought

    • Who is “the man”?
    • Why does this broadside use the word “man”? What other words could they have used? (e.g., his name; the slave, etc.)
    • Who is “the kidnapper”? 
    • Why does the broadside use this word? What other words could they have used?
    • Why did Bostonians want to purchase Burns?
    • What does the word “eminent” mean? Why describe Boston citizens this way?
    • Why do you think the U.S. Commissioner (Judge Loring) advise “the kidnapper” to sell Burns to Boston citizens?
    • What might the “Lies” be that this broadside warns against?
    • Who is the audience for this broadside? What are readers being asked to do? 
    • What was the purpose of this broadside? Do you think it was effective?
    • How might the broadside have influenced public opinion about Burns’ case? About the Fugitive Slave Act? 

    Document 2. Boston Slave Riot and Trial of Anthony Burns, Pamphlet, 1854, title page 

    Note: The pamphlet can be read in full at the Library of Congress.

    • What information can you learn from the words and image on the title page?
    • Whose image do you think is featured? How is he depicted?
    • When and were was this printed?
    • Who was involved?
    • What is the purpose of a pamphlet? Who might have been the audience?
    • What questions do you have? What do you want to learn?

    Defining "Riot"

    You may want to dig in deeper into the concept of “riots”. A riot is defined as a “violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.”

    • Do you think this was a "riot"?
    • Why does the pamphlet describe it as the "Boston Slave Riot"?
    • Does the pamphlet have an opinion on it?
    • Who was involved on each side?
      • Where was violence involved? Did it come from one side? Both sides?
    • Is this the best word to describe what happened in this case? Why/why not?
    • Are you familiar with any other "riots"? How does this one compare/contrast?
      • Are 'violent disturbances of the peace by a crowd' always described as "riots"? Why/why not?
      • What emotional reactions do people have to the word "riot"?
    • Can a riot be justified? Why/why not?

    Document 3. Mary E. Blanchard’s  4 June 1854 letter (p. 3-6)

    The Fugitive Slave Act was one of the causes that led to the Civil War. In her letter to her father, Blanchard wrote: “I suppose the South will consider [Burns’ forced return to VA] a great victory…” What do you think she meant by that?

    • What else was happening in the country at this time? How did Burns' case fit into this larger picture?

    Document 4. Burns' 23 August 1854 letter

    • Why do you think Burns is in jail?
    • Boston abolitionists were not able to protect Burns, but he says their efforts “...did do some good; for my suffering would have been ten hundred times greater than it is…” Why do you think he feels this way?
    • Burns refers to Virginia as "the land of death." Why do you think he calls it that?
    • What does Burns want Dana and his other supporters to do? Why?
    • Why doesn't Burns want his supporters to identify themselves if/when they go to VA to buy his freedom?
    • Who important is literacy to Burns' quest for freedom?

    Document 5. Check used to buy Anthony Burns' freedom, 22 February 1855

    • Why do you think this check was saved and placed in an archive?
    • How important was community in freeing Anthony Burns? What communities was he part of? What communities might Reverend Grimes have collected money from?

    Document 6. Burns’ 9 July 1859 letter

    • Why does Burns write to Dana?
    • Why won’t he be visiting Boston in the summer?
    • Why do Americans celebrate the 4th of July?
      • How does Burns feel about the 4th of July? Why?
    • What does Burns want? 
    • What is freedom like for Burns? 
      • What joys are there? Struggles?
    • What is he doing in 1859 and what communities is he part of at this point in time?

    Document 7. Diagram to Protect Fugitive from Slave Catcher, Anti-Man-Hunting League, ca. 1854-1859 

    • What is an “Anti-Man-Hunting League”?
    • Who was being “hunted”? 
    • Who created the League? Why might they have done so?
      • Students may want to read the Historical Overview and this essay from the Boston African American National Historic Site to learn more about Boston’s Vigilance Committee to compare it to the work and objectives of the Anti-Man-Hunting League.
    • For what reasons might the League have been secret?
      • How might a secret league have been able to influence public opinion about the Fugitive Slave Act, and slavery itself?
    • What do the captions tell students about Anthony Burns? About Boston abolitionists? What questions do they still need answered?


    Additional Glossary

    • Claimant: a person asserting a right
    • Embarkation: the process of loading a ship

    Suggested Activities: Grade 5

    Worksheets for all activities

    Summarizing and Analyzing Primary Sources

    Students can read the primary sources in this set independently, in pairs, or as a whole class. Shortened, adapted texts for documents 3, 4, and 6 are available to download in the blue sidebar. 

    To learn about/refer to some of the people they will encounter in the documents, you can share this Brief Bios worksheet with students.

    Before they start, students should understand two main points:

    • In 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which meant that enslavers could–with aid from the government–travel into free states and force individuals they had previously enslaved to return to slavery.
    • In 1854, Anthony Burns was a 20-year-old Black man who was enslaved in Virginia. He ran away from Virginia to Massachusetts to be free.
      Plot Diagram: Anthony Burns' Journey to Freedom


      Activity Overview:

      A plot diagram contains 5 elements: Setting, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution. The Google slides show how a plot diagram can be used to teach the Boston Massacre. In this activity, students read a set of slides about Burns' journey to legal freedom. Then, they put the slides in order, giving each slide a title. Finally, they place image thumbnails representing each slide along the arc of the plot diagram line.

      Additional Context: Using a Plot Diagram on your wall or bulletin board helps students see the path that a story follows from beginning to end.  It is also a great way to reinforce elements of a story by integrating English-Language Arts skills with historical content.  Using visuals on the Plot Diagram helps students, especially English Language Learners, to remember key details.  

      Mapping Anthony Burns’ Journey to Freedom

      Each primary source marks a different part of Burns’ journey to (and in) a free life. Anthony Burns first freed himself in early 1854 by escaping to Boston, but it was not until February 22, 1855 that he was legally free.

      As students read the documents–independently, in groups, or as a whole class–have them note:

      • When was this source created?
      • Where was it created?
      • What was happening in Burns’ life at the time it was created? (Was he free? Enslaved? Jailed? What was he doing at this time? What important events happened?)

      Then, have students work individually or in groups to map Anthony Burns’ journey to freedom. Maps could take many forms. For example, students could:

      • Create a timeline
      • Trace and label Burns’ journey using different colored arrows, etc. on a map from the time period. This circa 1850 map available at the Library of Congress shows the eastern United States (including MA, VA, and OH) and some of Canada, including Lake Ontario. 
      • Draw Burns’ journey in a series of pictures, or write an entry for each stop on his route to (and during) freedom.
      • Facing History & Ourselves also has a teaching strategy on creating Life Road Maps for historical figures
      In Your Own Words

      For each source they read, ask students to write the main idea of the source in their own words. Students can use the questions from the source set tab to help them take notes (worksheet here). 

      • Questions to consider: What is the source saying? Who is the audience? What does this source have to say about Anthony Burns? About the Fugitive Slave Act?

      • These sources are also an opportunity to talk about Burns' agency and motivations. His case began because he ran away from Virginia to free himself!

        • His letters are evidence that, while enslaved, he learned how to read and write. In his first letter, he writes to Dana with a new freedom plan (he asks supporters in Boston to buy it for him).

        • In his second letter, written from Ohio, Burns needs Dana's help getting money from his bank account to be able to continue his studies so that he can become a minister and provide for himself.  

      • Students’ notes will help them create maps of Anthony Burns’ journey to freedom.

      One Sentence Project: Who was Burns and why does he matter?

      Have students write one sentence about Anthony Burns. They can also choose to illustrate the sentence. Prompts to help students consider how to sum up his life in one sentence: 

      • What was most important to Burns?
      • How did his actions help him become free? 
      • How did the Fugitive Slave Act impact him, and how did his case change Massachusetts laws?
      Defining Terms: Fugitive Slave or Freedom Seeker?

      In the 1850s, enslaved people who ran away from their enslavers/place of enslavement were called “fugitive slaves.” A ‘fugitive’ is a person who has run away from a place, or is in hiding. Usually, they are hiding from arrest. Before 1865 in the United States, a ‘slave’ was someone who was the legal property of another person for their whole lives. Under the law, they remained enslaved, even if they ran away to a free state. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, their enslaver–and the United States government–could force them back into slavery. 

      Today, we often refer to people like Anthony Burns as “freedom seekers” instead of “fugitive slaves.” 

      Questions to discuss with students as they read these documents:

      • What does it mean to be free? Was Anthony Burns “free” when he was living in Boston (but before his freedom had been purchased)
      • What does the term “freedom seeker” mean to you? Where have you heard the words “freedom” and “seeker”? Do those contexts help you to understand the term “freedom seeker” as a whole?
      • What action do you think of when you hear “fugitive”? What action do you think of when you hear “freedom seeker”?
      • Why do you think some people today have stopped using the term “fugitive slave” and use “freedom seeker” instead.

      In the 1850s, abolitionists called the people who tried to arrest freedom seekers “man-hunters,” “slave hunters,” and “slave catchers.” Even though their actions–arresting a ‘fugitive’–were legal, abolitionists also called them “kidnappers.” 

      • Why might abolitionists have used the term “kidnappers”?
      • Do you think calling slave catchers ‘kidnappers’ helped to persuade other Bostonians to oppose the Fugitive Slave Act?

      Suggested Activities: Grades 9-12

      Worksheets for activities

      Lessons in Looking

      Students can look at Documents 1, 2 and 7 to generate questions they have about the case of Anthony Burns and Bostonians’ response to the Fugitive Slave Act. 

      Documents 1, 2, 3 share how other people were writing about Burns, publicly and privately. In documents 4 and 6, students read Burns’ own words to understand the impact the Fugitive Slave Act and slavery itself had on him. Worksheets to take notes on these documents are linked to in the sidebar.

      Note: Certain historical figures appear in multiple documents without context or background information. To help, share the Brief Bios worksheet with students before or while they read.

      Jigsaw and Gallery Walk

      Have students work in groups to each do a close reading of one document in the set. Each of the documents gives information on a different part of the story, and each group will analyze a different document. (Similarly, students can read their assigned document individually or as a pair and then work in a group to discuss and write about it.)

      Remind students to read any captions created about the document; the captions were written by library/archives staff many years after the documents were created, and often give context about it.

      Reading these documents will help students to learn what happened to Anthony Burns, and how various members of the Boston community worked to help him to be free, or keep him enslaved.

      Questions for students to consider:

      • What type of primary source document is this?
      • Who created it?
      • When was it created?
      • Who was involved? 
      • What actions did Anthony Burns take to become free?
      • Who helped Burns? How did they help?
      • Who worked against Burns to try and continue his enslavement? How did they do this?

      Once students have had time to analyze and discuss their document they should choose questions to respond to and write them on large paper. Then, students will complete a gallery walk around the classroom to learn about the other documents in the set. 

      Following the gallery walk, students can discuss as a class or write individually on one or more of the following questions:

      • Describe chronologically Anthony Burns’ life from liberating himself from enslavement in Virginia to studying at Oberlin College in Ohio.
      • How did the Fugitive Slave Act impact Anthony Burns?
      • How did free Black and white Bostonians respond to the Fugitive Slave Act?
      • Who enforced it? Who resisted it?
      • How did Anthony Burns achieve his freedom? What do you know about his free life?
      Contemporary Perspectives: Purchasing Freedom

      Relevant primary sources from this set: Anthony Burns to Richard Henry Dana, Jr, Letter, 23 August 1854 and Check used to buy Anthony Burns’ freedom, 22 February 1855

      Some abolitionists resisted the idea of “compensated emancipation” (or, paying to free an enslaved person). They thought that paying money to buy a person meant they were participating in, or giving legitimacy to, slavery as a system. 

      As a class discuss:

      In what ways could abolitionists work to end slavery? How could enslaved people fight for freedom (their own and freedom of all)? Which methods/actions  included direct action (strategies that sought to achieve an objective immediately)? 


      Extending the Conversation: For additional perspective, students can read about William and Ellen Craft, a married couple who moved to Boston after liberating themselves from slavery in Georgia in 1848. However, following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Crafts faced the threat of being forced back into slavery. Even though their freedom was at stake, the Crafts rejected the offer of a wealthy, white Bostonian to purchase their freedom. You can learn what William Craft said about that offer at a National Park Service digital exhibit on the Crafts here.

      • Which actions impacted individuals only? Which impacted all enslaved people?
      • Why did Anthony Burns ask his lawyer Richard Henry Dana, Jr. and other allies to purchase his freedom? (Students can cite evidence directly from Burns’ 23 August 1854 letter to Dana.)
      • Under the Fugitive Slave Act, where / under what conditions were formerly enslaved people truly free?
      Historical Perspectives: Thinking Civically

      After analyzing all of the documents, students can consider:

      • What were the causes and consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act in Boston? Of the case of Anthony Burns?
      • Enslaved people who escaped slavery were breaking the law. Free people who helped them were also breaking the law. All could be punished. These were acts of civil disobedience. 
      • What actions did Anthony Burns take to free himself? What actions did others take to help free him? 
      • What institutional changes occurred in the wake of Burns’ case? Which actions led to the change? Which were most important? 
      • Can you think of other acts of civil disobedience from other times in the past or present?
      • How do people use strategies inside and outside of institutions to make change? 
      • What makes a citizen? What responsibilities do citizens have to each other, and everyone in their local and national communities?

      Applicable Standards 

      C3 Framework for Social Studies Standards

      D2.His.9.3-5. Summarize how different kinds of historical sources are used to explain events in the past.

      D2.His.10.3-5. Compare information provided by different historical sources about the past.

      D2.Civ.5.9-12. Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.

      D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past

      MA 2018 HSS Standards

      Grade 5, Topic 5, Slavery, the Legacy of the Civil War, and the Struggle for Civil Rights for All

      USH I, Topic 5, The Civil War and Reconstruction: Causes and Consequences


      Additional Resources

      Anthony Burns and the Fugitive Slave Act

      Additional Primary Sources Related to the Fugitive Slave Act at the MHS

      More broadsides

      First Anniversary of the Kidnapping of Thomas Sims, by the City of Boston (1852)

      In February 1851, Thomas Sims (ca 1830s-1902) escaped enslavement in Georgia and fled to Boston. In April, southern agents working for James Potter, Sims’ enslaver, collaborated with U.S. marshals in Boston to find and arrest Sims under the Fugitive Slave Act. Black abolitionists tried but failed to free Sims from the courthouse jail where he was held. His case grabbed the attention of abolitionists and they worked to keep his story in the public eye.

      Americans to the Rescue! Irishmen Under Arms! Americans! Sons of the Revolution!! (1854)

      This 1854 broadside printed in Boston calls for open defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and reflects the relationships and uneasy dynamics between antislavery activists, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant nativists, Irish immigrants, and Black people (free and fugitive) in antebellum Massachusetts. While preparations were being made to return fugitive slave Anthony Burns to bondage, this public notice announced that "cowardly" Irishmen serving in local militia units (the Columbian Artillery) and the United States Marines were protecting the "kidnappers" of Burns (federal marshals) and thwarting the efforts of "Sons of the Revolution" to rescue him.

      Murderers, Thieves and Blacklegs Employed by Marshal Freeman!

      This broadside accuses United States Marshall Freeman of using disreputable people--along with the U.S. military--in Burns' forced march to the ship that returned him to slavery in Virginia. In her letter to her father, Mary Blanchard used similar language to describe the men who immediately surrounded Burns, writing, "...In the centre of a hollow square formed of volunteers, about 200, all the worst blacklegs and pimps of the city, walked the slave, a good looking fellow. Each one of these men had a drawn sword, or knife..."

      No Slavery! Fourth of July!, Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, 1854

      This broadside advertising a Fourth of July rally was sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1854. Noted abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and Henry David Thoreau addressed the crowd. In a dramatic climax, Garrison burned copies of the Fugitive Slave Law and the United States Constitution. 

      Stop Thief, Broadside, Boston (1855) 

      This broadside announces a search for a Massachusetts captain who promised to help five enslaved people escape to MA, but took their money and left them stranded. Possibly published by the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League.

      William Cooper Nell, photograph

      William Cooper Nell (1816-1874) was a Black abolitionist, publisher, author, and member of Boston’s Vigilance Committee. Along with Lewis Hayden, Nell was one of the leading organizers of Boston’s Underground Railroad operations.

      Ellen Craft, engraving

      Ellen and William Craft self-emancipated from enslavement in North Carolina in 1848. They traveled to freedom by train and steamboat. Ellen disguised herself as a well-to-do white man and pretended she was William's enslaver. In this image, she is pictured in her disguise. Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Crafts left Boston and emigrated to England to secure their freedom.

      Collection guide to the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records 

      • These materials are digitized, but not transcribed.

      From the Library of Congress

      Anthony Burns / drawn by Barry from a daguereotype [i.e. daguerreotype] by Whipple & Black ; John Andrews, sc, 1855.

      Biographies of people, organizations, and places involved in Burns’ story from the NPS and Boston African American National Historic Site:

      Related Digital Resources and Secondary Materials


      Questions or suggestions? Contact us at education@masshist.org.