The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Four

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

(Parts 1, 2, 3)

Like Millard Fillmore before him, Franklin Pierce took fugitive slave rescues very seriously. They amounted to open conspiracy to violate federal law. More than that, the federal law they violated held the Union together. If not a part of the Constitution exactly, it had a kind of de facto para-constitutional status in their minds. The South had informed the North, in the wake of the secession conspiracy back in 1850, that the Union rested on the fugitive slave act. Even if the North hated that law, northerners must live with it. After the first wave of fugitive rescues, the North had done so. Defiant Boston abolitionists, who succeeded for Shadrach Minkins and then failed for Thomas Sims, had new friends thanks to the Kansas-Nebraska act but the large mob that gathered outside the Boston courthouse failed to free Anthony Burns.

That left Burns, despite some long-shot legal maneuvers, to wait on the verdict of his trial before Commissioner Edward G. Loring. The prosecution called up William Brent, who managed Burns for his owner in Richmond. Brent described Burns in detail to confirm his identity and testified to the arrangement they had back in Virginia. He then reported hearsay, despite the objection from Burns’ defense. Shortly after Burns’ capture he exchanged words with his owner, Charles Suttle. Both men spoke frankly about their former circumstances. On Burns’ part, that amounted to a confession that Suttle owned him. The prosecution brought out another witness to confirm the story.

The attack on the courthouse to free Burns

The attack on the courthouse to free Burns

Richard H. Dana, Jr. had a formidable challenge in defending Burns. The commissioner had it practically from Burn’s own lips that he belonged to Suttle. He had Brent’s description to match to Burns. The facts all aligned against Dana’s defense. Dana did assert that Brent and Suttle had the wrong man, calling witnesses who claimed to see Burns in Boston before the date of his escape, but spent more of his efforts attacking the law. The fugitive slave act, Dana argued, improperly gave the powers of judges to those unqualified for the bench. It therefore flew in the face of the Constitution, which reserved the judicial power of the United States to the Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress may create. More than that, it denied the accused any right to trial by jury. It required search and seizure of Burns’ person without a proper warrant or probable cause and denied him due process. Furthermore, the whole matter amounted to a personal crusade by Brent on behalf of Southern rights. His sectional zeal led him to seek the kidnapping of an innocent man.

Testimony in the Burns trial concluded on Wednesday, May 30. The same day, Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. Loring delivered his judgment on June 1, brushing aside Dana’s constitutional arguments as issues that the Massachusetts courts had heard and dismissed before. Loring thus needed rule only on whether or not William Brent and Charles Suttle had the right man. Based on Brent’s testimony, Loring ruled that they did.

The next day, Suttle took possession of Burns. The abolitionists had not gone away. The night before they held a candlelight vigil. They draped the streets in black crepe. Abolitionists from all over Massachusetts came to see Anthony Burns marched back, through a cordon of 1,500 federal troops that Franklin Pierce sent to see it done, from the courthouse to the revenue cutter that Pierce dispatched to take him back to Virginia. For that afternoon, they locked Boston down under effective martial law.

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