Trial of Anthony Burns offers authentic local history lessons

Few incidents galvanized the anti-slavery movement in Massachusetts and the nation like the 1854 trial of fugitive slave Anthony Burns.

Though area abolitionists thronged the streets outside the Boston courthouse where the captured slave was held, Judge Edward Loring decided to send Burns back to his Virginia owner. The players of Theatre Espresso recreate this historic moment in the original play, The Trial of Anthony Burns. Visit the Theatre Espresso Web site  for more information.

In 1855, Burns was excommunicated from the Baptist Church, in which he had served as a pastor, because Burns, said the church,  had "absconded from the service of his master, and refused to return voluntarily -- thereby disobeying both the laws of God and man.." In a letter to the church, available online from Assumption College, Burns responds in part:

I admit that I left my master (so called), and refused to return; but I deny that in this I disobeyed either the law of God, or any real law of men.

Look at my case, I was stolen and made a slave as soon as I was born. No man had any right to steal me. That manstealer who stole me trampled on my dearest rights. He committed an outrage on the law of God; therefore his manstealing gave him no right in me, and laid me under no obligation to be his slave. God made me a man -- not a slave; and gave me the same right to myself that he have the man who stole me to himself. The great wrongs he has done me, in stealing me and making me a slave, in compelling me to work for him many years without wages, and in holding me as merchandize, -- these wrongs could never put me under obligation to stay with him, or to return voluntarily, when once escaped.

The Assumption site also offers background readings and questions for reflection on the Kidnapping of Anthony Burns.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Conn., offers teachers institutes on slavery and abolition and posts lesson plans developed by participants. Robert A. Gibson's four-day lesson plan for high school school history classes, This Question of Slavery, uses primary documents from the Burns trial.

The full text of Charles Emery Stevens' 1856 book, Anthony Burns: A History, is available online courtesy of the Documenting the South project at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The online edition also includes illustrations, such as "Night Attack on the Courthouse."

High school students will enjoy The Anthony Burns Affair, a Web project created by a Georgetown Univerity student that includes information on Burns' early life as well as the historical effects of the trial.

The trial also sparked the muse of poets John Greenleaf Whittier and Walt Whitman. Their poems about the Burns trial, The Rendition and A Boston Ballad, may be read online along with an essay on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and the Civil War from The Classroom Electric project.

More Burns links: