Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns (1834-1862) was a fugitive African American slave whose recapture in Boston forced his return to slavery, thus angering many Northerners and increasing the moral force of the abolitionists.

Anthony Burns was born in Stafford Country, Va., on May 31, 1834. By the age of 6 he had learned the alphabet from neighboring white children and could read. After a youthful conversion, he became a Baptist slave preacher. While working in Richmond, he escaped from his owner, C. T. Suttle, by stowing away on a ship. Arriving in Boston in March 1854, Burns found friendship and employment among the free blacks.

Suttle learned the whereabouts of Burns through an intercepted letter and determined to recover his slave, valued at $1,000. Armed with a court order, Suttle had Burns arrested in May 1854 under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required only "positive identification" before a Federal commissioner to award custody of an African American to an "owner"; there was no jury trial or possibility of appeal.

On the night preceding the formal hearing before the commissioner, an abolitionist meeting was held. Theodore Parker and Wendell Phillips urged that Burns be freed, by force if necessary. Thomas Wentworth Higginson led a group of blacks and whites in a badly timed charge on the jail. Although one guard was killed, Burns was not freed. On the next day Richard Henry Dana, Burn's counsel, argued brilliantly for his client but failed to prevent the slave's return to Virginia. Mass hostility regarding the decision forced the governor to use militia, marines, and regular army troops when Burns was marched across Boston to a waiting ship. To prevent a repetition of similar cases, several Northern states enacted "personal liberty laws" designed to block the capture and return of fugitive slaves.

After 5 months in a Richmond prison, Burns was sold to a speculator who made a handsome profit by reselling the slave to a group of Bostonians who, in turn, freed him in March 1855. He returned to a hero's welcome in Boston, where he assisted C. E. Stevens in compiling Anthony Burns: A History (1856).

Late in 1855, with the aid of antislavery people, Burns entered the preparatory department of Oberlin College in Ohio. After a year there he attended Fairmont Theological Seminary in Cincinnati for a year's study and returned again to Oberlin. During 1858-1859 he reportedly served as pastor of an African American congregation in Indianapolis, Ind. He returned to Oberlin once more, remaining there until June 1862. During his holidays, in addition to preaching, Burns traveled on the abolitionist circuit, speaking against the evils of slavery and selling copies of his book. In the spring of 1862 he went to St. Catharines, Ontario, to become pastor of a congregation of freedmen. He died there on July 27, 1862, after a short illness.

Further Reading on Anthony Burns

In addition to the biography by Charles Emery Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History (1856), the trial of Burns is described in an anonymous pamphlet, The Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns (1854). More recent accounts appear in the biographies of the prominent Bostonians who participated: Oscar Sherwin, Prophet of Liberty: The Life and Times of Wendell Phillips (1958); Samuel Shapiro, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 1815-1882 (1961); John L. Thomas, The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison (1963); and Tilden G. Edelstein, Strange Enthusiasm: A Life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1968).

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