Monday, December 19, 2016

History does not repeat, but it can instruct ...

Once upon a time, this was what resistance looked like ...
A poster telling Arthur Burns' story
By 1854, many citizens of Boston had come to understand that slavery was simply wrong. And yet their political authorities, including their respected Senator, Daniel Webster, the entire federal judiciary, and the President (that would be Franklin Pierce as hardly any of us are likely to remember) demanded enforcement the Fugitive Slave Law. This law required that any escaped slave be turned over to his or her "owner." The law was the law, duly enacted, and must be obeyed. (Quotes here come from Burns' story as told on

On May 24, 1854, an escaped slave from Virginia, one Arthur Burns who worked as a clerk in a Boston clothing shop, was seized by a federal marshal. Abolitionists were organized as the Boston Vigilance Committee (BVC), composed of prominent "clergymen, intellectuals, attorneys and merchants." They had smuggled escaped blacks to Canada for over a decade. The Burns arrest impelled them to go public.

They provided Burns with a lawyer to represent him: Richard Henry Dana, (coincidentally the author of Two Years before the Mast, still worth reading as an accessible account of Mexican California in the 1840s). As a legal matter, Burns' case was hopeless, but the abolitionists convened a public meeting and worked themselves up to attack the courthouse where he was held.
Some 5,000 irate antislavery protesters attended. Wealthy merchant George Russell, a founding member of the BVC, opened the meeting and immediately set the tone: “The time will come when Slavery will pass away….I hope to live in a land of liberty — in a land where no slave hunter shall dare pollute with his presence.”

Next, America’s most radical abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, condemned what he perceived as the twin outrages of that same May week: “I call [the Kansas-Nebraska Act] knocking a man down, and this [the arrest of Burns] is spitting in his face after he is down.” Phillips called for an assault on the courthouse the next morning to rescue Burns: “See to it that tomorrow, in the streets of Boston, you ratify the verdict of Faneuil Hall, that Anthony Burns has no master but God.”

After Phillips’ impassioned abolitionist oration, the Rev. Parker took to the podium, again asking the crowd to assemble the next morning to rescue Burns. “I love peace,” said Parker, “but there is a means and there is an end; liberty is the end, and sometimes peace is not the means towards it.” Parker advocated violent action: “I have heard hurrahs and cheers for liberty many times; I have not seen a great many deeds done for liberty. I ask you, are we to have deeds as well as words?” The crowd screamed, “Yes!” ...
In fact these white abolitionists had been beaten to the punch by black Bostonians who were assaulting the jail that very night. The BVC crowd joined these blacks. Though they battered their way into the jail, they were unable to prevail over the 50 armed deputies within.

Boston's mayor declared martial law and President Pierce sent in the Marines to remove Burns and enforce the statute. The effect on Bostonians was profound.
Burns was escorted out of the courthouse, surrounded by a large contingent of Marines. Some 50,000 Bostonians lined streets draped in funereal black bunting, booing, hissing and screaming “kidnappers!” Burns was marched down to Long Wharf to begin his long voyage back to Virginia and slavery.

Abolitionist Samuel May, after watching in silent rage as the Burns procession passed by, said: “He has gone! And Boston and Massachusetts lie, bound hand and foot, willing slaves at the foot of the Slave Power.” Abolitionist lawyer and BVC member John Swift reacted in similar fashion: “It was too much for me — to my inmost soul I felt the deep degradation of that moment. Not only had Anthony Burns been deprived of his rights, I had lost something — had lost the proud privilege of saying that I had life and being in a free commonwealth.” ...

Boston would never be the same again. As Amos Lawrence [a wealthy industrialist whose mills ran on the cotton slaves picked] described the transformation, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.” At a huge July 4 outdoor meeting held in nearby Framingham a month after the Burns decision, William Lloyd Garrison made his point not with words but with flames. He stood before the crowd and burned a copy of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law... Finally, Garrison held up a copy of the U.S. Constitution and set it ablaze, condemning it as “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

[Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden was issued weeks later insisted] ... the Burns trial was “really the trial of Massachusetts.”
The minister of a white Boston church eventually bought Arthur Burn's release from his Virginia master; Burns attended Oberlin College and became a minister. He died of tuberculosis in 1862 at age 28.

One federal deputy, a 24 year old Irish immigrant, was killed in the courthouse melee. Neither side seems to have considered his death consequential.

What was consequential was the experience of resistance to slavery, resistance to a moral evil operating under the cover of a perverted legalism. Once such large numbers of Bostonians felt viscerally that they had stood up against such evil, pressure against slavery would build.

None of this was uncomplicated or without cost. Among the white abolitionists, resistance gained force from the adherence of some of the prosperous and powerful, as well as from more ordinary citizens. By the standards of the 21st century, almost all these abolitionists harbored racist views. Though the assault on the Boston jail was apparently launched by free black people (men?), the words of the white leaders are what history makes easily accessible.

There were casualties along the way and eventually a war that killed something like 700,000 people. Apparently that cost was what it took to end slavery. And even then, freedom for all remained an aspirational notion, as it does today.

But there was resistance. And horror. And humanity.

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