The Story of Anthony Burns, Part One

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

The general furor in the North over the Fugitive Slave Act had cooled by 1854. They had lived with it for three years, four come September. It might please very few white northerners to do so, even if they loathed black people, but the sky had not fallen. After the initial round of high-profile rescues, life largely went back to normal. Compromise and Union men prevailed. Abolitionists might have gained a higher profile and more recruits from the controversy, but the Union still had more friends and the Union hung on the Compromise of 1850. That compromise, Georgia informed the North, rested on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

But if the Union hung on the Compromise, then what had the South done with Kansas-Nebraska but destroy it? With the help of the man who masterminded the compromise, no less! The North voted for Franklin Pierce and the Democracy as the Compromise party. They put through the final settlement on slavery in the territories. The North considered the matter entirely closed. Northern men no more voted for reopening the slavery issue than they voted for lawless, anarchic abolitionist mobs storming courthouses or shooting slave catchers.

The year of 1854 has a considerably more going on simultaneously than suits the convenience of writer or reader. Filibustering, the Gadsden Purchase, and Kansas-Nebraska all overlap. To make a coherent narrative the writer must take one at a time, but the people living the year experienced it all together. Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska act on May 30, 1854. By then, another story had joined the year’s busy calendar.

Anthony Burns, born in Virginia in 1834, turned twenty the day after Pierce signed the great plains over to slavery. He lived on the other side of the country as a slave, property of Charles F. Suttle. Suttle hired Burns and his other human property out. Working as a merchant, he didn’t need all the manpower he owned for his personal use. In 1852, Suttle had Burns hired out in Richmond. Burns convinced his overseer (Suttle himself lived in Alexandria.) to let him hire himself out. That let Burns keep some of the money and gave him a small measure of additional control over his life. Burns made friends with some Northern sailors who came to Richmond by way of the James River. With the friends and cash necessary, Burns slipped on a ship to Boston in February or March of 1854, as the Senate considered Kansas-Nebraska. He got a job working in a clothing store for abolitionist Lewis Hayden.

Burns came from a family of thirteen. As he essentially fell off the face of the Earth from their perspective, he wrote to let them know that he made it to the North, alive and well. That meant, of course, putting his location in writing and passing it through the mail. Burns sent the letter through Canada, hoping that would misdirect any pursuers. That proved insufficient, because custom dictated that slaves receiving letters had those letters delivered to their owners. The envelope might have fooled Suttle and his agent, William Brent, but they opened it and read the contents.

Armed with the knowledge that Burns had decamped to Boston, Suttle and Brent followed. On May 24, they had a federal marshal arrest Burns on his way home from work. Two days before, Alexander Stephens rammed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through the House with those crucial thirteen votes. The North raged against Stephen Douglas, his act, and southern oathbreaking. To its outrages, it could add another, soon very public, fugitive slave capture in capital of abolitionism. Events in Boston naturally drew all eyes.

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