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Escaping Slavery: The Consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

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The following is a guest post by Jack Carlson, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. He is an undergraduate student studying history and political theory at Michigan State University.

Almost nothing about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (9 Stat. 462) was as consequential as its effects on enslaved people in America. With the passage of the 1850 law alongside the Compromise of 1850, freedom seekers were faced with renewed threats of returning to slavery. In response, many fled north, while others evaded capture and remained free in the North. Yet for freedom seekers such as Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns, who were ultimately returned to slavery, their stories ignited tense debates over the constitutionality of the law and the morality of slavery in general.

A black and white image of an African-American man, Anthony Burns, with sketches of the major points of his story surrounding him (from left bottom over to right bottom: The Sale; Arrest in Boston; The Escape on shipboard; Departure from Boston; The Address).
Anthony Burns. Drawn by Barry from a daguereotype [i.e. daguerrotype] by Whipple & Black; John Andrews, sc. John Andrews, engraver. ca. 1855. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //
A year after the passage of the 1850 Act, Thomas Sims escaped from slavery in Chatham County, Georgia, where he was enslaved to James Potter. He traveled north aboard a ship as a stowaway, remaining undetected by the crew for some time. As the ship neared the city of Boston, a crewmember discovered Sims and informed the captain of his presence. To avoid being arrested, as one newspaper reported, he made his escape from the ship by taking one of its additional boats, and the “next morning he was gone.” Sims made his way to Boston, where he found refuge for the next several months.

But James Potter soon became aware of Sims’s escape and his presence in Boston. Because the 1850 Act required federal marshals and local law enforcement to assist enslavers in recapturing fugitives, Potter was able to enlist the assistance of a federal marshal and several local authorities to assist him in capturing Sims. They eventually found him on the night of April 3. Upon being captured, Sims “raised the cry of ‘kidnappers;’ and stoutly resisted being carried into the court-house” to await trial.

This is an illustration of abolitionist Wendell Phillips addressing a Boston crowd protesting the trial of Thomas Sims.
Anti-slavery meeting on the Common [Wendell Phillips speaking]. [1851]. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //
Boston had long been a center of abolitionist sentiments, with prominent antislavery figures such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips residing there. Abolitionists in Boston, hearing of Sims’s arrest and already deeply opposed to the 1850 Act, were thus eager to secure his escape. Despite devising several attempts to rescue Sims, including a plan for him to jump onto a mattress situated beneath the window of his third-story cell, they were unsuccessful in helping him escape before trial. During the trial, his defense provided a powerful and passionate case against his return to slavery and the constitutionality of the 1850 Act. Still, he was ultimately convicted and remanded to Potter.

The return of Sims to slavery witnessed an astonishing spectacle of protest in Boston. Authorities decided to escort Sims to a brig heading for Savannah, Georgia on the early morning of April 12, a time during which they hoped few protestors would be present. In order to prevent Sims from escaping, over 300 local authorities were assigned to help escort him to the ship. Despite the presence of nearly 100 spectators, “the whole affair passed off very quietly” with only “a little hissing.” After reaching the ship successfully, Sims was returned to Georgia, where he remained enslaved for over a decade. Speaking of his arrest a year later, abolitionist Theodore Parker was eloquent: “He came to us a wanderer, and Boston took him to an unlawful jury; [. . .] he cried for a helper, and Boston sent him a marshal and a commissioner; [. . .] and they made him their slave.”

A title page with large centered image of African American man in a suit and title "the Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns." Below is a subtitle in small font and at bottom is "Boston: Fetridge and Company. 1854."
[Title page of Boston slave riot, and trial of Anthony Burns with half-length portrait of Anthony Burns]. 1854. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //
By 1854, abolitionists in Boston seemed determined to prevent a similar situation from occurring again. In March of that year, an enslaved man from Virginia, Anthony Burns, escaped slavery and fled to Boston aboard a ship. For two months Burns found freedom in Boston, but on May 24, he was arrested by a federal marshal while walking in the city. Authorities were made aware of his location after he wrote to his brother from Boston, who was also enslaved in Virginia. The letter was reportedly “dated in ‘Boston,’ but sent [. . .] to Canada,” revealing his location to his owner, who then proceeded to obtain a warrant for his arrest. He was subsequently imprisoned in the local courthouse to await trial.

Abolitionists who received word of Burns’ arrest quickly devised plans to free him. A meeting of militant abolitionists resolved to free him by way of force, and on the night of May 26, they attacked the courthouse. “There [they] proceeded with a long plank, which they used as a battering-ram, and two axes to break in and force an entrance,” one report described in detail. Soon “pistols were heard in the crowd” and “some thirty shots were fired by rioters.” Their attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, however, with the event ending in the death of a federal marshal and the arrests of 13 people.

Burns was brought to trial the following day and convicted, cementing his return to slavery. Anxious over a recurrence of violence, authorities took additional measures to prevent his escape. President Franklin Pierce had earlier approved a detachment of “United States troops and others” to Boston in order to “prevent further violence and murder.” And so it was that on June 2, Burns was escorted to a ship by hundreds of armed federal soldiers. Outraged protesters lined the streets as the procession slowly marched toward the harbor. “Passing down State street the procession was greeted the whole entire route with mingled groans, cheers, and hisses,” while Burns “appeared as indifferent as the most uninterested spectator.” He was taken aboard the ship and forced back into slavery in Virginia, where he was eventually sold to another enslaver.

Front page of the Washington Sentinel. Click link for larger image and alto ocr.
Washington sentinel (Washington [D.C.]). March 8, 1855. Library of Congress Chronicling America. //
But neither the story of Anthony Burns nor of Thomas Sims ended after returning to slavery. For Burns, freedom came early. Only a year after the events in Boston, a Baptist preacher in the city led an effort to purchase his freedom, purchasing Burns on February 22, 1855, for “the sum of $1200.” Burns returned to Massachusetts and eventually enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio “’ to study for the ministry.’” Oberlin had a vibrant antislavery community; in 1858, abolitionists helped freedom seeker John Price escape slavery and flee to Canada in what became known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. Upon graduating from college, Burns became a pastor at the African American Baptist church in Indianapolis, later moving to Canada to continue his work in the ministry. While Burns died in 1862 at the age of only 28, his story made a lasting mark on American politics and opposition to slavery. “The name of Anthony Burns,” said abolitionist Hiram Wilson, “fills an important place in the history of events which led to the great conflict now pending [. . .] and will be pronounced with honor when the fetters shall have fallen from the limbs of millions of his suffering brethren.”

On the other hand, Thomas Sims remained enslaved until 1863, when, during the Civil War, he escaped from Vicksburg “in a dugout, having on board his wife, child, and four men besides” into the Union lines of general Ulysses S. Grant. He provided details of Confederate positions and fortifications, afterward returning to Boston. In 1877, Sims was appointed as a messenger in the U.S. Department of Justice by U.S. Attorney General Charles Devens. Devens previously crossed paths with Sims as a U.S. Marshal when he assisted in his arrest in 1851, an event Devens reportedly recalled “with pain.” Sims later died in 1902. Like Anthony Burns before him, he left behind a legacy as an important figure in the resistance to the 1850 Act in particular and opposition to slavery in general.

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Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for telling the untold. Say their names! One of the most intriguing other stories is that of Ona Judge, who escaped in Philadelphia from George Washington. The Washingtons continued pursuing her for years. (This was before the Fugitive Slave Act, of course.) There are a number of books about her, including some for children. It’s a powerful counterpoint to the myth of Washington’s benevolence to the people he enslaved.

  2. Nice narrative. It is an additional page to the litany of similar narratives detailing untold horrors of hapless men, women and feeble children in the hands of fellow humans who thought the purported superiority of their skin colour connoted a licence to brand fellow humans with hot iron and whipped them to death amidst other malevolence. However why the nations that benefited from this most iniquitous crime against mankind has not atone for the sin by way of Reparations like the Nazis did to the Jews beggars belief

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