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Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, and the Underground Railroad continued

A Calliope Fact Sheet
Copyright 2001 Calliope Film Resources, Inc.
Student Permission


Part III: The Turning Point. The Case of Anthony Burns (1854).

1854: Shattered confidence, violent resistance.
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." Note 15.


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 fugitives.
  • 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 Revolutionary War.
  • 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,' and … 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.'" Note 16.

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.


Students! You have our permission to quote from (not copy from) these pages about Thoreau, abolitionism, and the Underground Railroad -- provided that you acknowledge it in your bibliography as follows. And don't forget the references in the footnotes.

Calliope Film Resources. "Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and the Underground Railroad." Copyright 2001 CFR. http://www.calliope.org/thoreau/thurro/thurro3.html
[And add the date on which you visited this web page.]

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Conclusion: Part IV | Back to Part I | Part II

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Updated July 15 2011