Anthony Burns: Escaping the Fugitive Slave Law

A Freedom Seeker's Remarkable Second Chance at Freedom

Anthony Burns
Broadside of Anthony Burns case. Public Domain Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Anthony Burns, born on May 31, 1834 in Stafford County, Virginia, was enslaved from birth.

He was taught to read and write at an early age, and became a Baptist and a preacher to others who were enslaved, serving at the Falmouth Union Church in Virginia.

Working as an enslaved man in an urban environment, Burns had the opportunity to hire himself out. It was the freedom that Burns experienced that led him to self liberate in 1854. His self-liberation resulted in rioting in the city of Boston, where he took refuge. 

A Self-Liberated Man

On March 4, 1854, Anthony Burns arrived in Boston ready to live as a free man. Soon after his arrival, Burns wrote a letter to his brother. Although the letter was sent through Canada, Burns' former enslaver, Charles Suttle, realized that the letter had been sent by Burns.

Suttle used the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to bring Burns back to Virginia.

Suttle, Burns' enslaver came to Boston to reclaim Burns. On May 24, Burns was arrested while working on Court Street in Boston. Abolitionists throughout Boston protested against Burns' arrest and made several attempts to free him. However, President Franklin Pierce decided to set an example through the Burns' case—he wanted abolitionists and freedom seekers to know that the Fugitive Slave Law would be enforced.

Within two days, abolitionists crowded around the courthouse, determined to set Burns free. During the struggle, Deputy U.S. Marshal James Batchelder was stabbed, making him the second Marshal to die in the line of duty. As the protest grew stronger, the federal government sent United States troop members. Burns' court costs and capturing were more than an estimated $40,000.

Trial and Aftermath

Richard Henry Dana Jr. and Robert Morris Sr. represented Burns. However, since the Fugitive Slave Law was very clear, Burns' case was a mere formality, and the ruling was made against Burns. Burns was remanded to Suttle and Judge Edward G. Loring ordered that he be sent back to Alexandria, Virginia.

Boston was under martial law until later in the afternoon of May 26. The streets near the courthouse and harbor were filled with federal troops as well as protesters.

On June 2, Burns boarded a ship that would take him back to Virginia.

In response to Burns' ruling, abolitionists formed organizations such as the Anti-Man Hunting League. William Lloyd Garrison destroyed copies of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Burns court case, and the Constitution. The Vigilance Committee lobbied for the removal of Edward G. Loring in 1857. As a result of the Burns' case, abolitionist Amos Adams Lawrence said, "we went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists."

Another Chance at Freedom

Not only did the abolitionist community continue to protest following Burns' return to enslavement, the abolition community in Boston raised $1200 to "purchase" Burns' freedom. At first, Suttle refused and "sold" Burns for $905 to David McDaniel from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Soon after, Leonard A. Grimes purchased Burns' freedom for $1300. Burns returned to live in Boston, and wrote an autobiography of his experiences. With the proceeds of the book, Burns decided to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. Once he finished, Burns moved to Canada and worked as a Baptist pastor for several years before his death in 1862.