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The Trial of Anthony Burns

By Ronica Roth | HUMANITIES, May/June 2003 | Volume 24, Number 3

Anthony Burns was the last escaped slave in the United States to be returned to the South under the Fugitive Slave Act. His trial in Boston in 1854 sent fifty thousand people into the streets in protest and invigorated the abolition movement in the United States.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years later, the trial that decided Burns's fate is reenacted each week in Boston's federal courthouse for middle and high school students. The students see a play, The Trial of Anthony Burns, and then take on the role of the Massachusetts Senate, which removed the presiding judge from office following the Burns trial. It is part of the Discovering Justice initiative funded in part by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

Acting as state senators, the students grapple with the laws and mores of mid-nineteenth-century America. In the process they learn how different the country's moral landscape was before the Civil War. In the Burns case, the state had received fifteen thousand petitions from citizens calling for Judge Edward Loring's removal; although he had upheld the law, his decision went against public sentiment.

“They often ask, ‘Are you a racist, Judge Loring?’” says Beth Dunakin, law and program director for Discovering Justice. “They learn that judges are humans who have a job to do,” says Maria Karagianis, founding executive director. “They learn that democracy is complicated and messy and that reasonable minds can differ.”

“Students almost always vote to remove Loring from the bench, believing he should have done the right thing rather than implement the law,” says program director Marsha Weinerman. “Two or three groups did come to their own understanding that it was a different time, even though it is deplorable now.”

The school groups learn how the Burns trial was a critical moment in the country’s history. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 led to blacks being kidnapped on the streets of northern cities and returned to captivity. It created a backlash of abolitionist activity and the passage of new personal liberty laws in the North, which were cited by South Carolina as a grievance in its justification to secede from the Union in 1860.

Three years before the Burns case, another fugitive slave had been rescued by abolitionists from a courtroom in Boston in 1851 and sent to Canada for safety. Burns’s forced return outraged ordinary citizens and abolitionists. Abolitionists purchased Burns’s freedom for $1,300, but only after he had already endured four months in a slave prison in Virginia. After two years spent at Oberlin College in Ohio, Burns moved to a community of freed and escaped slaves in Canada. There he became a minister. He died at the age of 28.

The play touches on legal and moral issues of the period. Actors depict how Burns feared retribution from his owner if he defended himself. Before the audience, Boston abolitionist lawyer Richard Henry Dana convinces Burns to defend himself and then construes a complex defense, alleging that Burns could not be the person that owner Charles Suttle claimed (although no one really doubted he was). The group also hears from Minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who led several hundred people in a rescue attempt at the courthouse in which one person was killed.

“We are engaging the students in an interactive way,” says Dunakin, who researched and cowrote The Trial of Anthony Burns with Wendy Lement, artistic director of Theatre Espresso, which performs the play.

Before the reenactment, the students learn about Burns and the abolitionists through an exhibition at the courthouse called, “The Price of Freedom: Anthony Burns and the Fugitive Slave Act.” The exhibition displays the handcuffs worn by Burns during his Boston incarceration as well as keys to the prison where he was held.

About the Author

Ronica Roth is a writer in Denver, Colorado.