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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 is an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he thinks that other historians have unfairly characterized Emerson as a salon-party sage who preached liberty but held racist views and took no active part in the struggle to end slavery.

Von Frank says that Emerson is the "subject" of his book whereas Anthony Burns is its "object." That phraseology might seem to reflect the tendency of some abolitionists to care a lot more about the cause of freedom in general than about the lives of individual slaves in particular. Von Frank himself is not guilty of any such slighting of the personal element, however. His book is rich in sympathetic details about Burns and what happened to him.

Anthony Burns had no ambition to become a political cause. When he appeared in court the morning after his arrest, he was fatalistic and passive, reasoning (correctly, as it turned out) that his return to Virginia was inevitable and that it would go harder for him if he resisted. The first task for volunteer attorney Richard Henry Dana (the author of Two Years Before the Mast) was to persuade Burns to accept his assistance. Magistrate Edward Loring unwisely tried to mollify Dana by granting a continuance, and thus gave the abolitionist forces time to organize a public meeting and a rescue.

The Boston Vigilance Committee convened the meeting on Friday evening in Faneuil Hall, where abolitionists Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker delivered impassioned speeches that expressed much more hatred toward the slave owners than love for the slaves. Von Frank comments, "Nothing in the record of the Burns affair is more striking to a modern audience or at first more off-putting than the apparent incapacity of even the most committed of the radicals to express a direct, authentic outrage on Burns's personal behalf."

Indeed, the abolitionists appealed primarily to the fears and sectional feeling of their audience, as if slavery were a crime that federal officials and Southerners were committing against free white men. When passions had been sufficiently whipped up, the meeting was interrupted on cue by a voice from the back shouting, "Mr. Chairman, I am just informed that a mob of negroes is in Court Square attempting to rescue Burns! I move we adjourn to Court Square!" The riot was on.

The group from Faneuil Hall converged with a crowd of white and black men at the courthouse, where they joined battle with local police and dozens of working men who had been deputized for the emergency as federal marshals. (Another of the less attractive practices of the Yankee abolitionists was the rhetorical abuse they continually directed at these mostly Irish deputies.) The mob was repulsed, but a 24-year-old Irish deputy was killed in the skirmish, and the ensuing confusion—or abolitionist coverup—was such that it never was conclusively determined whether the man had been stabbed or shot, let alone who was responsible.

After the failed rescue, attempts were made to purchase Burns's freedom from his owner, Charles Suttle, and to mount a legal defense. Suttle eventually refused to sell, probably because he was so disgusted at the Yankee behavior. The law was all on his side. Dana could only throw up a barrage of bogus technical objections, hoping that public opinion would intimidate magistrate Loring, who earned his real living as a state judge. The federal government called out the militia, and Loring dutifully issued the unpleasant order returning Burns to his owner. (Loring lost his state judgeship in consequence but was appointed by President Buchanan to the Court of Claims.) With an escort of federal marshals, Suttle brought Burns back to Virginia in chains and, just as Burns had feared, threw him into a stinking dungeon and then sold him.

The story, however, had a happy ending with a curious twist. Burns managed to smuggle a note out of his cell describing his condition, and the plea for help eventually reached Dana. A subscription was raised to buy Burns's freedom. The new owner was willing to sell, and the barely literate (but intelligent and resourceful) ex-slave eventually entered Oberlin College on a scholarship. He addressed a dignified rebuke to his old Virginia church, which had excommunicated him for "disobeying the laws of God and men" by escaping from slavery. At his death in 1862, he was the much-esteemed pastor of a Baptist church in Ontario, and signed himself in his last letter as "Anthony Burns, Ex-Abolitionist: now thinks Lee a Better Man."

I found the saga of Anthony Burns much more interesting than von Frank's effort to give credit to Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists. Many of the leading Boston abolitionists were admirers of Emerson, but Emerson himself contributed little more than a few lofty pronouncements to the effect that slavery violated a higher law vaguely grounded on nature rather than on divine revelation. He seems to have had nothing to say about the crucial "how" questions.

Slavery did violate a higher law, but like all evils it needed to be eliminated in the right way and with the right weapons. Precipitating the secession of the Southern states before the North was ready to meet the challenge was not necessarily the way to help the slaves. Several years after the Burns episode, Lincoln was elected to the presidency and led the North to a victory that ended slavery, but the outcome could easily have been otherwise. Finally, if Emerson's abolitionist friends contributed to ending slavery, they contributed just as much to the vindictive side of the Reconstruction era, which in the end backfired.

The abolitionists fought for a noble cause, but there was nothing ennobling about their violent rhetoric and bullying tactics. I think of the great moral witness that was made over the centuries by leaders in the struggle against racial oppression, including John Newton, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bishop Desmond Tutu. A true moral leader does not merely appeal to the zealots on his own side; he makes the oppressor confront the reality of the evil he is perpetrating and hence heals at the same time that he liberates. That was the kind of moral leadership America needed in the slavery crisis. A better-educated Anthony Burns might have filled the role, but Ralph Waldo Emerson just didn't have what it takes.

Phillip Johnson is professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley.

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