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Phillip E. Johnson


The Fugitive Slave and the Transcendentalist

On Wednesday, May 24, 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the last great legislative effort to achieve compromise in the conflict over slavery and avert a civil war. Drafted mainly by Stephen Douglas, the act outraged antislavery opinion by allowing territories to decide by popular vote whether to enter the Union as free or slave states.

On the evening of that same Wednesday, a federal marshal in Boston arrested Anthony Burns under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law, which dated from the Compromise of 1850. After 1850 it had become increasingly clear that the South would never agree to restrict slavery to its original boundaries, while the extension of slavery into the West was unacceptable to the North. Stephen Douglas's "freedom of choice" formula satisfied neither side, and so the Kansas-Nebraska Act turned out to be a step toward the war it was intended to avert.

In this context, the effort to return Burns to slavery in Virginia triggered a violent confrontation between the abolitionists of Massachusetts and the federal government of President Franklin Pierce, whose secretary of war was Jefferson Davis, later to be president of the Confederacy. The federal government succeeded in its immediate object, but at the cost of triggering a political realignment first in Massachusetts, and subsequently in the nation. The Whig party dissolved, the previously dominant Democratic party divided into irreconcilable factions, and the stage was set for the emergence of the Republican party and Abraham Lincoln.

The Trial of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston
by Albert J. von Frank
Harvard Univ. Press
409 pp.; $27.95

Professor von Frank retells the story of the Burns case to make two points. First, he thinks that the personal experience of Northerners with this sort of close-to-home drama had more to do with the political realignment (he wants to call it a "revolution") than did the more distant issues like the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Second, von Frank ...

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