- The Imperfect Revolution: Anthony Burns and the Landscape of Race in Antebellum America
Although it is only one of several high-profile instances of northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, the story of the 1854 rendition of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns usually takes precedence over the others because of its Boston setting and the stirring eloquence of Burns's many defenders. As traditionally told, the return of Burns to his owner in Virginia was accomplished only by the use of federal troops, made necessary to fend off the Boston mob, while the heavy-handed actions of the Pierce administration united northerners as never before against the institution of slavery. James McPherson once wrote of the Burns rendition: "It is impossible to exaggerate the impact of this event."1
But is it? Gordon S. Barker thinks otherwise. In his revisionist account, The Imperfect Revolution: Anthony Burns and the Landscape of Race in Antebellum America, Barker insists that both the sympathy for Burns in Boston and the importance of this event have been greatly exaggerated. Barker particularly takes issue with the claim that a "consensus" of hostility toward slavery was formed in Boston during the Burns affair and that a "groundswell of antislavery sentiment" emerged in its wake (xvi). Somewhat incongruously, Barker also takes previous historians to task for their lack of interest in Anthony Burns the man, preferring to focus instead on Burns the martyr. Barker highlights the inability of even some of Burns's staunchest white defenders to see him as a man rather than a symbol. The two sides of Barker's argument do not always fit comfortably together. On the one hand, he calls for more attention to Anthony Burns as an individual and as a member of a fugitive community, while on the other hand, he insists that the significance of the Burns affair has been considerably overblown.
Because his book challenges the prevailing historiography and mythology of the Burns rendition, readers might expect a chapter-length overview of this myth, but Barker dispenses with the subject in a few succinct paragraphs. Of the short list of previous works Barker mentions, Albert J. von Frank's well-received 1998 book, The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston, serves as his main foil. Barker's title is a direct response to von Frank's suggestion that a "pocket revolution" took place in Boston during the Burns affair that converted some of America's leading intellectuals to the antislavery cause (60). As a literature professor, von Frank was particularly interested in the responses of Boston's intellectual elite and the political mobilization of transcendentalists. Barker [End Page 267] implicitly faults von Frank for presuming his intellectuals had a great deal of national influence, for minimizing the role of the black community, and for placing exclusive emphasis on Burns as a symbol. Yet he provides virtually no counteranalysis of von Frank's evidence. His strategy rather is to dismiss von Frank's crowd as "the few" and to argue that "the many" probably did not share their views.
Perhaps reading both von Frank's and Barker's books will be necessary to get a balanced picture of the Burns rendition. Barker constructs his narrative largely on those aspects of the story von Frank neglects. We learn a good deal more about Anthony Burns, from his early life in Virginia, where he managed to become a literate Baptist preacher, to his final passage to freedom in Canada after black abolitionists raised money for his purchase. The role of Reverend Leonard Grimes, a black preacher at Boston's Twelfth Baptist Church, is highlighted in this latter affair as he finally purchased Burns's freedom. Barker spends a good amount of his narrative quoting from newspapers and sources that give voice to Bostonians who were not swept up in the Burns drama and those that downplay the influence of antislavery radicals. He also tries to show that white abolitionists themselves were only...