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The Magnet and the Iron: John Brown and George L. Stearns The Stories Behind the Busts

Anthony Burns

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A Portrait of the Fugitive Slave Anthony Burns, 1855
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Anthony Burns was a young man who in 1853 escaped slavery at the age of 18 and fled to Boston. The following year, on May 24, 1854, he was arrested and tried under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Burns’s arrest caused a huge uproar in Boston. Large protests by both black and white citizens led to the placement of federal marshals around the courthouse. On May 26, a group of activists, including Lewis Hayden and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, stormed the courthouse in an attempt to free Burns, a technique that had previously worked for the rescue of Shadrach Minkins. The rescue attempt failed, and in the commotion, a federal marshal was killed. To the anger of the general public, Burns was marched out of Boston by federal marshals to be returned to slavery.

Burns’s arrest and return to slavery by federal forces was a turning point for many New Englanders who had previously held passive stances on slavery. The very public display of power by the federal government to return a man in a free state to slavery was seen not only as immoral but also as federal overreach and a violation of states’ rights. Thus Burns’s arrest only fueled antislavery sentiment.