On May 24, 1854, federal marshals arrested Anthony Burns, kicking off one of the most famous fugitive slave – and nullification – cases in U.S. history.
Burns ultimately lost his court case and was returned to slavery, but the cost of the trial, along with the publicity, made the Fugitive Slave Act much more difficult to enforce moving forward.
Burns was born into slavery in Safford County, Virginia, on May 31, 1834. His mother was John F. Suttle’s family cook. When the elder Suttle passed away, Burns became the “property” of Charles F. Suttle. When the younger Suttle moved to Alexandria, Burns stayed on the plantation in Safford County with his mother.
Burns learned to read and write. He also preached at the Baptist Church, a violation of Virginia law.
In an effort to pay off debts, Charles Suttle hired his slaves out to other men in Safford County. In 1852, Burns was working for a man named William Brent and ended up in Richmond, where he apparently talked Brent into letting him hire himself out on his own time. Burns used some of the money he earned to buy passage and escape to Boston.
Burns could have easily remained hidden in Boston, but he made a mistake. He wrote a letter to his brother in Virginia. The postmaster delivered the letter to his brother’s owner who conveyed it to Suttle. Although Burns arranged to have the letter mailed from Canada, its content revealed his whereabouts in Boston.
Suttle immediately went to the courthouse in Alexandria County where the judge found Suttle had enough evidence that he owned Burns to issue a warrant for his arrest under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Suttle and Brent then headed to Boston.
Deputy Marshal Asa O. Butman arrested Burns as a runaway under the federal Fugitive Slave Act on May 24, 1854.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ranks as one of the most insidious laws in American history. It denied a black person accused of escaping slavery any semblance of due process. A white man could basically drag a black person south into slavery merely on the power of his word. This put people born free in the North under the constant threat of being snatched up and sent to slavery. The act also included perverse incentives. Commissioners who presided over rendition hearings earned $10 if a slave was returned to her or his owner. They only received $5 if they determined the accused runaway was in reality free.
On May 25, Burns was brought before the commissioner for what was expected to be a quick hearing. But by happenstance, a prominent antislavery attorney walked passed the courthouse and heard about the proceedings. Richard Henry Dana Jr. intervened on Burns’s behalf.
Burns initially rejected legal assistance, believing that his return to slavery was inevitable and things would go better for him if the proceedings went smoothly. But Burns eventually relented at the urging of both black and white abolitionists.
Thousands of protesters assembled outside the courthouse. Eventually, the crowd attempted to rescue Burns, resulting in the death of a newly deputized U.S. marshal.
In the wake of the violence, President Franklin Pierce ordered federal troops to guard the courthouse.
The trial lasted for nine days as Dana tried to prove Burns did not belong to Suttle. The commissioner ultimately rejected Dana’s arguments and ordered that Burns should be turned over to Suttle and returned to Virginia.
It took more than 1,500 troops to hold back the anti-slavery protestors as Burns was moved from the courthouse to the ship that would haul him back to Virginia.
While both the rescue and legal wrangling failed, the protests in Boston didn’t die with Burns’ return to Virginia. The incident fueled anti-slavery sentiment throughout the North. Amos Adams Lawrence was one man who thrust himself into the abolitionist movement after the Burns affair. He summed up the feelings of many,
“We went to bed one night old-fashioned conservative compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad abolitionists.”
While Suttle successfully used the Fugitive Slave Act to get his “property” back, it came at a high cost. The government spent between $40,000 and $50,000 to prosecute the case, a huge sum of money in the 1850s. The difficulty and expense of conducting the case certainly deterred others from pursuing fugitive slave rendition.
The trial also gave a boost to the abolitionist cause and led to the passage of “personal liberty laws” in every northern state. These state laws undermined enforcement of the act by limiting, and in some cases prohibiting, state cooperation with federal agents. There were also provisions in some of these state laws that punished state officers who served as fugitive slave commissioners. The most aggressive personal liberty laws subjected anybody capturing an accused fugitive to kidnapping charges.
In the year following the Burns trial, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Massachusetts Personal Liberty Act. The law called for the removal of any state official who aided in the return of runaway slaves and the disbarment of attorneys assisting in fugitive slave rendition. Another section of the law authorized the impeachment of state judges who accepted federal commissioner positions authorizing them to prosecute fugitive slaves.
Any person holding any judicial office under the constitution or laws of this Commonwealth, who shall continue, for ten days after the passage of this act, to hold the office of United States commissioner, or any office…which qualifies him to issue any warrant or other process…under the [Fugitive Slave Acts] shall be deemed to have violated good behavior, to have given reason for the loss of public confidence, and furnished sufficient ground either for impeachment or for removal by address.
The law also provided criminal penalties for any person who removed a fugitive slave from the state without proving his or her servitude in a state court under the criteria set up by the act – no easy task.
After passage, there is no record of a fugitive slave ever being returned from Massachusetts.
As for the violent attempt to rescue Burns, a grand jury indicted three people involved in the effort. But after an acquittal of one man and several hung juries in the other trials, the federal government dropped the charges with no convictions. This was a clear case of successful jury nullification.
Upon his return to Virginia, Burns spent four months chained up in a Richmond slave jail, leaving him permanently crippled and in ill health. Suttle later sold Burns to a North Carolina slave trader for $905. In the spring of 1855, a group of free African Americans acting through their Baptist minister, Leonard Grimes, bought his freedom for $1,300.
Burns subsequently studied theology at Oberlin College. There is also some indication that he studied at Fairmont Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. He later pastored churches in Indiana and Canada. He was also a strong anti-slavery voice.
Burns died of consumption on July 27, 1862.
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