1854: Shattered confidence, violent
With the collapse of legal protections under the Fugitive Slave
Law, the disintegration of an important national political party
(the Whigs) over slavery, disagreements among factions of abolitionists,
and the increased militance of all parties in the sectional struggle
between free states and slaveholders... the arrest and trial
of Virginia refugee Anthony Burns in 1854 came as
a turning point for black Bostonians and for the entire abolitionist
movement, Thoreau included.
It was absolutely plain to a majority in Massachusetts that
the Burns case was an intervention by the federal government
in order to reaffirm the four-year-old Fugitive Slave Law in
the antislavery heartland, Boston.
"No fugitive had seen the inside of a Boston courtroom
since 1851, and it had begun to look as though the Fugitive Slave
Law might never again be tested there," writes historian
Albert J. Von Frank, who believes that the case of Anthony Burns
was even more decisive in unifying popular opposition
than Congress's proslavery passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act
that same year. "In a single moment a three-years' growth
of confidence in the immunity of Boston was shattered."
The Boston courthouse is guarded
by police and hung with chains
In Boston, the arrest and trial sparked days of protest around
the courthouse where Burns was jailed, culminating in a poorly
organized abolitionist assault that left one jail guard dead.
President Franklin Pierce authorized emergency troops in Boston.
On June 2, 1854, two hundred guards marched the convicted Burns
through streets lined with onlookers, beneath windows darkly
draped in mourning and a black coffin labeled "Liberty"
suspended from ropes, to the ship that would return him to Virginia.
As sympathizers watch, Burns is
returned under heavy escort.
1854-59. The use of force.
- Before now, Boston's black community largely supported violence
only for self-defense.
- After 1854, Boston blacks felt abandoned by an untrustworthy
government and were more willing to use force to protect
- Those involved in the Burns rescue attempt "became community
heroes," in the words of historian James O. Horton.
- Frederick Douglass reflected the sentiment of increasingly
militant blacks when he declared that the "kidnapper"
killed in the Boston courthouse attack "had forfeited his
right to live."
"Slavery in Massachusetts" was Thoreau's
angry response to the Burns affair. His chosen title was ironic.
- In Massachusetts itself, slavery had been illegal since the
- Yet now Thoreau declared there were "perhaps a million
slaves in Massachusetts" - slaves of intolerable institutions
and proslavery governments - who went along with an inhuman law
instead of resisting it.
Thoreau delivered this lecture, a far sharper denunciation
of government than "Civil Disobedience," on the Fourth
of July 1854 before hundreds of abolitionists in Framingham,
sharing the platform with Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips,
Lucy Stone, and the organizer, W. L. Garrison.
"With his gift for aphorism Thoreau distilled a dozen
years of Garrisonian criticism into a single sentence - 'The law will never make men free; it is men
who have got to make the law free.'
He offered the laconic reminder that citizens had
'to be men first, and Americans only
at a late and convenient hour,'
he warned that the fate of the republic
depended not on 'what kind of paper
you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of
man you drop from your chamber every morning.'"
Expressing in crisp, vigorous language the outrage of a community
at a crossroads, Thoreau moved beyond nonviolent tax refusal
toward accepting the necessity for violent resistance against
slavery: "I need not say
what match I would touch, what system endeavor to blow up, -
but as I love my life, I would side with the light, and let the
dark earth roll from under me, calling my mother and my brother
to follow." Note 17.