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The Imperfect Revolution

Anthony Burns and the Landscape of Race in Antebellum America

Gordon S. Barker

Publication Year: 2010

Gripping re-examination of the rendition of Anthony Burns

"This well-researched and clearly written study gets a new series off to a promising start. The chapter on antislavery life in St. Catharines, Ontario, is especially valuable."

Published by: The Kent State University Press


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p. viii

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Preface: First Reflections

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pp. ix-x

Almost ten years ago, reflecting on the outpouring of literature following the publication of Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution and the famous debate between James M. McPherson and Ira Berlin about “Who Freed the Slaves,” I became curious about how nineteenth-century blacks viewed the American Revolution. In particular, I wondered whether blacks in antebellum America considered the American Revolution over, and their ongoing struggle independent of that which their white neighbors had waged in the late eighteenth century, or if they believed the Revolution was still raging. ...

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Prologue: Remembering Anthony Burns

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pp. xii-xix

On a beautiful but cold, windy day in Boston in the spring of 2005, I found myself alone with the two historical interpreters on duty in the Visitor Information Center adjacent to Faneuil Hall. In that venerable building, known also as the “cradle of liberty,” Boston’s leading antislavery activists harangued a boisterous crowd in 1854 two days after the capture of Anthony Burns, soon to be Virginia’s most famous fugitive slave. ...

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Chapter 1: Perceiving the North Star

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pp. 1-5

When John Suttle’s most valuable female slave gave birth to Anthony Burns, her thirteenth child, on May 31, 1834, while Anthony’s father, her third husband, lay dying from the effects of stone dust inhalation, the United States was embarked on yet another period of remarkable economic expansion.1 The Union had recovered from the Panic of 1819, resolved the Missouri crisis, and survived the Bank War and the Nullification Crisis. ...

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Chapter 2: The Elusive North Star over the Cradle of Liberty

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pp. 6-22

One night in early February 1854, Anthony Burns gathered a few belongings; donned four layers of clothing, the outer layer being his usual dress for work at the docks; and, before daybreak, made his way to the Richmond harbor to meet the sailor who had agreed to arrange a hiding place on a ship heading north to the free states. Thinking that the vessel would sail that day, he slipped into a coffin-like space, where he would stay for much longer than he expected, nourished only by the bread and water that his friend brought him. ...

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Chapter 3: The Background to the Spectacle

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pp. 23-40

What really happened during Anthony Burns’s travail in Boston? In the days that followed Burns’s embarkation, strong antislavery sentiments, genuine admiration for the Virginian fugitive, and disaffection with the Pierce administration motivated Charles Emery Stevens to write the first history of the Burns affair. Although he deplored the outcome of the trial, Stevens sought to portray the drama in a positive light, suggesting that the crisis had fueled a groundswell of antislavery sentiment in Boston and throughout much of the North. ...

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Chapter 4: The Meaning of the Spectacle “No More Tumults” and the Black Bostonian Response

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pp. 41-62

A review of events in Boston in late May and early June 1854 shows that divisions within the abolitionist movement, differing commitments to law and order, and diverse ideologies of race produced varied reactions among Bostonians to the Anthony Burns drama. As many scholars have ably demonstrated, there was significant antislavery sentiment, but such feelings had to compete with other concerns. ...

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Chapter 5: A Call to Action in Virginia

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pp. 63-86

If the Anthony Burns drama aroused and united blacks throughout the North, it also served as a call to action for many slaveholding Virginians and other whites in the South. Undoubtedly President Franklin Pierce thought that decisive action in support of the Fugitive Slave Law, particularly the commitment of U.S. troops and financial resources to return Burns to his master, would set white Southerners at ease and make them feel secure in the Union.1...

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Chapter 6: Anthony Burns’s St. Catharines Safety under the “Lion’s Paw”

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pp. 87-119

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 changed the meaning of the North for runaway slaves and free blacks. African Americans had long suffered from endemic racism in the free states and from the plethora of discriminatory laws against blacks that such attitudes produced. These laws reflected in part white workers’ fears of a flood of low-wage black laborers from the South. But at least blacks in the North had their freedom—however limited or tenuous it may have been. ...

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Epilogue: Anthony Burns, Past and Present

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pp. 121-125

Hearing of Anthony Burns’s death, William Lloyd Garrison commented that the case of the last fugitive slave returned from Boston had “become historic,” and he predicted that Burns would “form a conspicuous figure in the drama of the times.”1 The legendary abolitionist was only partially right. Burns’s case has become historic, but his story has yet to find its rightful place in mainstream history alongside those of other Americans who stirred hearts and inspired dreams—sometimes on the streets of Boston. ...


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pp. 127-155


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pp. 157-169

E-ISBN-13: 9781612775258
E-ISBN-10: 161277525X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606350690

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 794698856
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Imperfect Revolution

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States. Fugitive slave law (1850).
  • United States -- Race relations.
  • Fugitive slaves -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Massachusetts.
  • Fugitive slaves -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States.
  • Burns, Anthony, 1834-1862.
  • Antislavery movements -- Massachusetts -- Boston -- History -- 19th century.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Burns, Anthony, 1834-1862 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Fugitive slaves -- United States -- Biography.
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