- Fugitive Slave on Trial: The Anthony Burns Case and Abolitionist Outrage
Fugitive Slave on Trial provides a detailed, readable account of the most politically charged American slave-rendition case. Though the political impact of the 1854 Anthony Burns affair far exceeded its legal import, the lawyerly insights that Maltz brings to bear shed further light on why and how this case was so hotly contested. Instead of concentrating exclusively on the four-day rendition hearing, Maltz spins the web of legal precedents and political conflicts that shaped this trial and the long shadow that it cast in pre-Civil War Boston.
Early chapters highlight the anti-rendition legal arsenal that those against slavery in Massachusetts had developed even before the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act as well as their skepticism about the constitutionality of [End Page 477] federal fugitive-slave legislation. Maltz demonstrates, however, that by 1854, when Charles Suttle arrived in Boston to claim his "property" (Anthony Burns), the state judiciary had shown that it would unflinchingly enforce the federal legislation. Members of the biracial Boston Vigilance Committee had established equally clearly their determination to resist fugitive renditions. Antislavery Bostonians thus reacted to Burns' arrest with a three-pronged strategy—providing him legal representation; trying (nearly successfully) to buy his freedom; and, most notoriously, attempting a rescue, during which an antislavery crowd stormed the courthouse and killed a deputy but failed to free Burns. His rendition a week later hardly ended the controversy.
Maltz skillfully chronicles antislavery politicians' efforts to remove federal fugitive commissioner and state probate judge Edward Loring from the Massachusetts bench. These "trials of Edward Loring" provide the central drama of the book's concluding chapters (3). Maltz sympathizes with Loring's hope of evenhandedly enforcing positive law regardless of its political implications. Notwithstanding Loring's apparent devotion to judicial neutrality, his ruling against Burns cost him his Harvard lectureship and, eventually, his post on the probate court. Popular pleas for Loring's ouster found strong backing on Beacon Hill with the rise of the nativist but also antislavery (in Massachusetts) Know Nothing Party in 1854, and then the Republicans' eclipse of the Know Nothings a few years later. After years of wrangling, state legislators managed to remove Loring in 1858 for continuing in violation of an 1855 Personal Liberty Law, which (among other responses to the Burns fiasco) barred state officers from serving as fugitive slave commissioners. At times seeming to lament Loring's plight as a scapegoat, Maltz may well be too dismissive of the antislavery forces' assertion that Loring blatantly chose to privilege his position as commissioner over the state's avowed antislavery sentiments.
Though Maltz might have more fully assessed how the rising national controversy surrounding the southern "Slave Power" (and its westward expansion) helps to explain the influence and notoriety of the Burns affair, his careful attention to its legal background and enduring political significance in Massachusetts elucidates key dimensions of a pivotal moment in the antebellum sectional conflict. Maltz effectively illustrates the tensions inherent in northern jurisprudence of fugitive slave rendition, providing an illuminating case study of issues raised in Robert Cover's provocative Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process (New Haven, 1975). Specialists may be frustrated with the omission of footnotes, but Maltz provides a useful bibliographical essay that helps to make the book well-suited for students exploring the legal history of slavery and freedom or of nineteenth-century federalism. [End Page 478]