the trial of anthony burns

Setting

Massachusetts was at the center of the abolitionist movement in pre-Civil War America. However, escaping from slavery was illegal, and state judges were compelled by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to return runaway slaves to their owners in the South. In 1854, a slave named Anthony Burns escaped to Boston where he lived as a free man until he was captured and placed on trial. Prominent lawyers fiercely defended Burns’ right to freedom. Judge Edward Loring rejected their arguments and returned Burns to his master. This action galvanized abolitionists and converted conservative citizens into freedom fighters. Indignation over the Burns case helped give birth to the Republican Party, propelled Abraham Lincoln to the White House, and eventually led to the Civil War.

What were the responsibilities of the Massachusetts judiciary to uphold the controversial Fugitive Slave Law in 1854?

Can the legal system ever resolve conflicts between the law “written in our hearts” and the statutes enacted by our government?

Can the legal system ever resolve conflicts between the law “written in our hearts” and the statutes enacted by our government?

THEMES
  • Slavery

  • Civic engagement

  • Moral law vs. human law

  • Tension between federal law and states’ rights

  • Placing a person’s life at risk for the greater good

  • Appointed versus elected judges

historical connections
  • Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

  • Compromise of 1850

  • Kansas-Nebraska Act

  • Tension between federal law and states’ rights

  • Abolitionist movement

  • Martial law

  • Judicial impeachment