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Before 1854, most Northerners managed to ignore the distant unpleasantness of slavery. But that year an escaped Virginia slave, Anthony Burns, was captured and brought to trial in Boston--and never again could Northerners look the other way. This is the story of Burns's trial and of how, arising in abolitionist Boston just as the incendiary Kansas-Nebraska Act took effect, it revolutionized the moral and political climate in Massachusetts and sent shock waves through the nation.
In a searching cultural analysis, Albert J. von Frank draws us into the drama and the consequences of the case. He introduces the individuals who contended over the fate of the barely literate twenty-year-old runaway slave--figures as famous as Richard Henry Dana Jr., the defense attorney, as colorful as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Bronson Alcott, who led a mob against the courthouse where Burns was held, and as intriguing as Moncure Conway, the Virginia-born abolitionist who spied on Burns's master.
The story is one of desperate acts, even murder--a special deputy slain at the courthouse door--but it is also steeped in ideas. Von Frank links the deeds and rhetoric surrounding the Burns case to New England Transcendentalism, principally that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His book is thus also a study of how ideas relate to social change, exemplified in the art and expression of Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, Walt Whitman, and others.
Situated at a politically critical moment--with the Whig party collapsing and the Republican arising, with provocations and ever hotter rhetoric intensifying regional tensions--the case of Anthony Burns appears here as the most important fugitive slave case in American history. A stirring work of intellectual and cultural history, this book shows how the Burns affair brought slavery home to the people of Boston and brought the nation that much closer to the Civil War.
The framers of the Constitution meant, with an instrument, to "secure the blessings of liberty," then so recently won, and literally to preserve the spirit of the Revolution in the letter of the law. And yet the creation of a new institutional authority, needful as the expedient clearly was, could not be made entirely consistent with the central idea of the revolutionary document, the Declaration of Independence, that authority rested not in institutions or in charters, but in the people themselves--people who were "created equal."
During the early nineteenth century, even as the American legal system drew power and standing to itself from the Constitution, it reciprocally conferred power on the Constitution, and eminent lawyers like Daniel Webster came to be identified in heroic manner with the towering prestige of that document. It is significant that at what ought to have been the height of his public career (1850-1852), Webster was occupied in a desperate attempt to charge with treason citizens who, in fugitive slave cases, had set the revolutionary principles of the Declaration above the duties imposed by the Constitution. Webster never quite succeeded in formally defining these antislavery protesters as traitors, but a class of men was surely emerging who looked upon the Constitution, with its radical commitment to slavery, as a charter of despotism. A new revolution was opening.
In researching the Anthony Burns fugitive slave case, I was slow-- and, I think, cautious--in coming to the conclusion that the event and its sequel were revolutionary in a strict sense. I was inclined to discount the specific assertions of many of the participants that they were engaged in a revolution, since such claims are, perhaps in most instances, merely self-dramatizing and rhetorical. Then, too, it was hard to credit the existence of a revolution that American historians had never mentioned. It was generally understood that the 1850s were a period of rising sectional tension, political instability, and realignment dominated by the slavery issue, but if there was a crisis at this time, it involved the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, rather than any one slave case or even all of them together.
Still, if one looks away from the national context and examines the Burns case, which set Boston on its ear in the spring of 1854 and made slavery at last unpopular there, what one sees is nothing less than a pocket revolution, operating most dramatically in the context of state politics, yet resonating largely and nationally because Massachusetts was not just any state, but arguably the home of antislavery and the capital of the culture of the North. If the definitional acuity of agitators in the heat of battle is not to be trusted, we can rely more confidently on the insights of a thoughtful historian like Hannah Arendt, whose On Revolution offers a cogent and particularized characterization of its subject. In Arendt's view, a revolution occurs when governmental policies are identified not just as despotic, but as simultaneously despotic and unnecessary or revisable. In its initial phase a revolution justifies itself as a return to a preferred older state of things, yet "only where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at least at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution." Making allowances for the scale of this revolution in Massachusetts, there is little in Arendt's extended definition that is not pertinent, from the prior "weakening of institutionalized religious beliefs" to the important position of the "hommes de lettres," from the function of property rights as a guarantor of liberty to the belief that political freedom is "the right 'to be a participator in government.'" Above all, as Arendt observes in quoting Condorcet, "the word 'revolutionary' can be applied only to revolutions whose aim is freedom." In proportion as slavery came to be felt as an encroaching form and philosophy of government (as it did most acutely in the Burns case), this liberationist motive was clarified and strengthened. My examination of the evidence convinces me that the Fugitive Slave Law, brought vividly home in a series of cases, was a far greater impetus to revolutionary protest, at least in Massachusetts, than was Kansas-Nebraska--that this was true not only because the slave cases played out before the astonished public gaze, and not only because it gave human faces to good and evil, but because the act for returning "fugitives form labor" became a trope for the tyranny of the legal system and revealed an intolerable stain in the Constitution itself.
The burns case was at the heart of a revolution that had its own particular Bastille and riot, that toppled a government in Massachusetts, destroyed certain political parties, and extemporized other. This "pocket revolution," as I have called it, owes its qualities of drama and spectacle to its locale, but it demands to be seen as participating in a broader revolutionary impulse that was bent on sacrificing the Constitution to achieve its antislavery aims, and that required in the end a civil war, a series of constitutional amendments, and the reconstruction of the American body politic fully to work its will.
My original motives for examining the Burns case had little enough to do with the conclusions just sketched. Mainly I wanted to know, in as profound and intimate a way as possible, how the liberal, emancipatory ideas I admired in Emerson and his associates comported with or struggled against the social and political fact of chattel slavery. There has been for some time a tendency in academic circles to discount or deplore the social, moral, and ideological implications of Transcendentalism, and to regard Emerson himself as uncommitted to reform or as dissuaded from action by unattractive, privately held racial views. Without trying to shore up Emerson's personal reputation, I wanted to see whether ideas that I thought valuable had in fact any significant social utility when brought to bear on what was without doubt the great moral issue of the American nineteenth century.
I supposed that the best way to arrive at some answers was to linger, for once, over the historical moment, and to understand in such depth and detail as a novelist might command the crisis that brought these ideas to the test. The case of Anthony Burns was self-sufficiently dramatic. I have not had to help it along with inventions or imbellishments of my own, but have merely tried to recover the reasons why, in 1854, it held the attention of so many Americans, and at the same time to understand what influences shaped the behavior it evoked. Having read many brief and superficial accounts of slave renditions--hardly more than passing references in the historical literature--I wanted to spend time with such a case, to see how the issues laid themselves out, what kinds of moral demands they made on spectators and principals, and how men and women justified to themselves their connivance with the Fugitive Slave Law or their opposition to it. I had ideas, to be sure, on all these points, but I realized they were entirely secondhand and traditional: none rested on any information I could regard as authentic.
My interest in the slave question as a test of Emersonian Transcendentalism had, I thought, a deeper justification in the bearing each independently had on freedom as a cultural theme. Freedom would inevitably mean different things to Ralph Waldo Emerson and to Frederick Douglass; yet if each failed to see his own position reflected in the statements of the other, some kind of blindness or hypocrisy would have to be involved. Thus there is a mutuality in the subject of this book that I am concerned to work out: if I think that Transcendentalism has been important to our national self-image in certain ways still not fully understood, so equally have race and slavery been. Black and white alike, we are accustomed to think of the African-American presence as that which troubles the dream of whiteness or as "a disrupting darkness," as Toni Morrison put it in Playing in the Dark. But it is not mere deconstructive legerdemain to insist that it has at times (and perhaps permanently) been the opposite of this as well, that what is marginalized is always secretly at the center, as when the figure of the fugitive slave--even Anthony Burns--comes into an ironic yet preeminent possession of the core idea of America and complexly represents to the nation the freedom it affirms most noisily and insistently, with flags and rockets and Fourths of July.
Anthony Burns was not a stereotypical slave: he never worked the tobacco fields, and indeed never did any kind of agricultural work. Apart from the fact that his wages seemed always to end up in his master's pocket, the most distinctive feature of his labor history was that it had annually a new chapter. Once he worked in a lumber mill and once in a flour mill, but most often he was a clerk or stock boy in a store in some town or city in eastern Virginia. His last slave job before his escape was one he found for himself, as a stevedore in Richmond. Although he was certainly and continuously exploited, there is no suggestion that he was worked unusually hard. If he was ever beaten, no serious allegation to that effect survives.
Southern apologists might have pointed to the conditions under which Anthony Burns lived and worked as exemplary of one of the milder forms of the peculiar institution. They would surely have gone on to compare his condition with that of a northern laborer, who had no master to see to it that he did not starve and die.
When Burns came to the attention of the abolitionists of Boston, they did not inquire into the conditions of his servitude. They did not propose to make judgments based on degrees of outrageousness, but considered that there was simply no form of slavery they were prepared to see a human being returned to. It was, for them, quite enough that Anthony Burns had been designedly kept poor and ignorant, that he had been systematically deprived of free will and self-determination, and that he now expressed a desire not to be controlled by the man who claimed to own him. Beyond that the details just didn't matter.
There may well be a problem in the abolitionists' indifference to the details, but it is not, I believe, just exactly the problem that Stanley Elkins made out in his 1959 Slavery. The great foible of the abolitionists, in Elkins' view, was the unmeasured quality of their response, the moral absolutism that sank the details of every particular case in the abstract, a priori righteousness of antislavery. The problem of abstraction in this context is that it involves one immediately in hard, nonnegotiable positions, invites thunderous Garrisonian ultimatums or intractable regional side-takings of the kind that makes politics and cultural institutions moot and leads in the short run to a destructive intolerance and in the long run to civil war. Elkins' formidable argument centers on the interesting but hypothetical possibility that the "tragedy" of the Civil War might have been avoided if the democratizing impulses of the age of Jackson, abetted by the Transcendentalists, had not subverted the people's faith in practical, coherent, time-honored institutional modes of problem-solving.
And yet the great service rendered by this party of iconoclasts was to show not that institutions should be done away with, but rather that institutions, as they found them in place, were infinitely more apt to establish injustice than justice. A reformer may look like an anarchist in some proportion to the corruption of the times. If the people had had a perfect and unshaken faith in their institutions (if the Transcendentalists had never convinced anyone of the value of self-reliance), if they had believed implicitly in the authority of the church, the inerrancy of the Constitution, the Solomonic wisdom of the leader class, what then? Why, then, hypothetically, they would have had slavery forever. It is a remarkable show of faith in institutions on Elkins' part to suppose that the very institutions that supported slavery could in any way be relied on to abolish it. The very best that party politics had ever been able to do with slavery was ineffectually to manage it. Elkins takes it for granted that institutions are a society's only channels of power; because this view leaves no room for genuine writers and intellectuals to operate, he cannot imagine how they could function relevantly.
The autobiographers of the antislavery struggle had it essentially right: the corruption of the institutional life could be exposed, condemned, and cured only from a vantage point outside and above it, which is to say from the direction of the ideal and the abstract. Another way to express the point is to say that motives to action had to be found with reference to the "higher law," not the lower. It is nearly impossible to give this proposition the kind of serious hearing I think it deserves against the almost unanimous assertion by historians of an intrinsic connection between idealism and irresponsibility--as though to affirm such a connection were not in itself intrinsically an anti-intellectual gesture. Emerson, for example, is repeatedly faulted by the historians (most prominently Schlesinger, Fredrickson, Elkins, and Rose) for not becoming actively involved in the organized opposition to slavery, with the implication that thinking and writing and speaking must be fraudulent or un-American if the author is unwilling to become embroiled in the associated life of politics. Apart from the usual misunderstanding of the force of ideas and of the power of literature implied in this judgment, there is an underestimated authority in the unmeant, nonpejorative supplement to the "irresponsible" position. Who, after all, sees an evil more clearly--the one responsible for it or the irresponsible one? It is specifically irresponsible to call for the dissolution of the Union merely because the Union is predicated on a foundational agreement to overlook kidnapping. And yet if a reformer does not begin his career this way as a marginal or ridiculous figure, he must remake himself into one. Jesus and Socrates were models here--very outside, very irresponsible.
Historians have been uncannily attuned to the ridiculous in Emerson, rarely, for example, passing up the chance to represent him as advocating "the perfectibility of man." The implication here is that Emerson will petulantly insist on the abolition of slavery because his standards for us are very high. It's not just Emerson with whom otherwise serious scholars will have their fun: Bronson Alcott invariably figures as the lovable visionary who can't tie his shoes, Margaret Fuller as the frustrated American virgin fulfilled in Italy, Thoreau as the crotchety hermit holding off the state with a sprig of huckleberries. The further one moves from the center of Transcendentalism, the less ludicrous and bemused the minor figures get, until at last James Freeman Clarke seems almost normal. It's a very good gauge of how alien and unreadable we still find any form of idealism, however secretly significant our own idealisms, acknowledged or otherwise, may be to us.
Historians keep coming back to the Transcendentalists, however, because they acknowledge that this group, for all its antic quirkiness, was "the closest thing to an intellectual community in the United States" and must therefore have some kind of importance. How to make out that importance, which is felt even by its detractors? In the limited context of the antislavery movement, one might begin by noting the contrast between modern historical assessments of the fatuousness of Transcendental reform and the high estimation in which Emerson was held at the time by abolitionist leaders, and then look a little less at what Emerson said and a little more at the evidence of his influence on the culture of antislavery. One may make a careful survey of Emerson's opinions on the subject and never come close to what it was in his thought that made a difference in the struggle. It can't seriously matter to anyone now living what Emerson's private views were, whether he was a racist or not (the success of antislavery did not depend on the prevalence of modern racial enlightenment), whether he vacillated in his opinions or was consistent, whether he spoke at a certain historic moment or kept his counsel; but we do all have a stake in understanding whether ideas make a difference, whether they have a transactional as distinct from an intrinsic value.
If Emerson is the subject of this book, Anthony Burns is its object. I have tried to express Emerson as plural by finding him in numerous influenced proxies, whom I call, somewhat loosely, "disciples." In representing Anthony Burns as singular, the effort is to resist the temptation, invariably felt by those around him, to see him as a symbol of slaves in general. Whatever was not fantasy in this tendency was fiction. On the contrary, his loneliness and isolation are facts to be respected. The culture was such as to allow Emerson to be almost infinitely reduplicated in others, to live and act through men and women, whom he may, in a sense, be said to have colonized. Not so with Anthony Burns, whose drama was a struggle of unity against nullity. To his enemies, including his owner, he was property; to his friends and defenders (with, I think, only one exception) he was a cause.
Burns's friends were a good deal more right than his enemies, but both their positions were defined in part by accidents of timing. On May 24, 1854, on the very evening that Burns was arrested, Democrats had streamed out of the Custom House, dragged cannons onto Boston Common, and fired off a crashing salute to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed that day in Congress. The event in Washington was taken to mean that the Democrats were firmly in control of national policy and that the West would soon be opened to slavery. As nearly as the newspapers can fix the time, both the arrest and the cannonading happened at eight o'clock, so that when the hand of deputy U.S. marshal Asa O. Butman fell from behind on the shoulder of Anthony Burns as he walked home along Brattle Street, a startling noise may have been heard by both men. A sound as of war in the city.
Thursday, May 25, 1854
Friday, May 26
The Jerry Rescue
The Battle at the Court House Door
Saturday, May 27
Not for Sale
Monday, May 29
The Defense Opens
Tuesday, May 30
Politics and Force
Bad Friday : June 2
Catholics and Anti-Catholics
Emerson's Pulpit (Whitsunday)
If We Feel Not
Fourth of July
Letters from Hell
An Emersonian Epilogue