Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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PBS’ ‘The Abolitionists’ has Stafford connections

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Famous fugitive-slave case spotlighted in ‘The Abolitionists’ linked with Virginia and South’s most outspoken foe of human bondage



Tuesday night, PBS wrapped up its three-part series “The Abolitionists” on television’s most popular history program, “American Experience.”

The episode opens with vivid imagery: a pinwheel of fireworks on July Fourth, 1854; abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in full-throated roar; and the shackled feet of a slave shuffling down a stone-paved hall in Boston.

The feet are those of Anthony Burns, whose treatment at the hands of the law so outrages Garrison that he publicly burns a copy of the U.S. Constitution on Independence Day.

Burns’ case sets up the epic events portrayed in the show.

What’s not said, since this is a fast-moving TV docudrama covering decades, is that Burns hailed from Stafford County, as did the man who went to Boston to reclaim him. Or that a third Staffordian witnessed Burns’ prosecution under the federal Fugitive Slave Act and later took to the platform with Garrison to decry it.

A print of Anthony Burns, whose arrest and trial under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 touched off protests by abolitionists and citizens of Boston in the spring of 1854. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)


“It’s the first national test case of the act, and forces a Northern state and city dominated by abolitionists to decide whether they’re going to play along and adhere to this federal law,” said Albert Z. Conner, a Stafford historian.

The Burns case caused a huge uproar, followed in the press by millions across the country. “It is impossible to exaggerate the impact of this event,” historian James McPherson has written.

People attacked the Boston courthouse in a failed attempt to free Burns, and martial law was declared on the day he was sent south to Virginia. President Franklin Pierce dispatched U.S. troops to keep order.

PBS viewers see those Marines leading Burns out of his cell, through the courthouse’s dark corridors and into the glare of daylight, to be put on a U.S. revenue cutter headed south.

“Fifty thousand Bostonians assemble to watch as militia and U.S. Marines march this one man back into slavery,” Conner said. “The city and state have to acquiesce and let him go.

“But it was a crossing of the Rubicon. They will never allow it again.”

And just as the fiercely fought case alarmed Southerners and toughened Northerners’ thinking about slavery’s grip on politics and the U.S. government, it radicalized the Stafford man who watched it—Moncure Conway.


The fellow in the center of this storm was the 13th child of enslaved parents. With his father and brothers, Anthony Burns worked in the Robertson stone quarry (site of today’s Austin Ridge subdivision), which furnished material to build the U.S. Capitol.

In adulthood, he belonged to Charles F. Suttle, a local merchant who moved to Alexandria and hired him out to William Brent of Falmouth. While working in Richmond, Burns saved money and arranged his escape north by boat, traveling to Boston in early 1854.

But a letter he wrote one of his brothers was intercepted and tipped Brent and Suttle to his presence in Boston. They traveled north, found Burns and had him arrested on his way home from work.

But when Richard Henry Dana Jr., a prominent antislavery attorney (and author of “Two Years Before the Mast”) intervened, Burns’ case became a cause célèbre.

For nine days, the courtroom drama gripped Boston. When an antislavery crowd breached the courthouse with a battering ram and tried to spring Burns from jail, deputy U.S. marshal James Batchelder was wounded and died.

From then on, troops and police guarded the courthouse as Dana tried to persuade the commissioner that Burns was not Suttle’s slave. He failed.

A period print of the huge crowd that accompanies Anthony Burns from the Boston courthouse to a U.S. revenue cutter that took him back to Virginia and slavery.

On June 2, hundreds of troops, with a loaded cannon, escorted Burns through the crowd toward the southbound ship. En route, every street was draped in black and flags displayed upside–down. A huge coffin, labeled “Liberty,” was suspended across State Street.

From the crowd, missiles were hurled at soldiers. A teamster who tried to block the march had his horse “skewered by bayonets,” writes Randolph College professor John d’Entremont.

Watching the frenzy from a window of the street-corner law office of radical attorney John Andrew (who became the Civil War governor of Massachusetts) were William Lloyd Garrison and Garrison’s new ally from Virginia, Moncure Conway.

Neal Huff portrays William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, in the PBS series ‘The Abolitionists.’ (ANTHONY PLATT)

Though the U.S. government proved it could enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Burns’ rendition cost $40,000 to $50,000 and inflamed the public, both North and South.

The Richmond Enquirer editorialized, “We rejoice at the recapture of Burns, but a few more such victories and the South is undone.”

Within a year, after imprisonment in a Richmond slave jail that left him crippled, Burns was back in Boston. African–Americans there had raised $1,300 to buy his freedom through their pastor Leonard A. Grimes, born a free black in Loudoun County.

Burns was later educated at Oberlin College, became a Baptist preacher and moved to Upper Canada to minister there. Today, he is the namesake of a Stafford County elementary school.

Anthony Burns Elementary School in Stafford County is named for the native son whose escape from slavery sparked the most famous fugitive-slave case in American history. (THE FREE LANE-STAR)


For Conway, what happened in the Boston court was the last straw.

Conway, enrolled at Harvard Divinity School, had been under pressure from both sides. He knew Suttle and Brent—a distant relative—and was certain the slave-catchers would report his inaction once they were back in Virginia. He would be ostracized for life.

Yet the abolitionists looked to him for help. A few had suggested he lure Suttle into an ambush, according to “Southern Emancipator,” D’Entremont’s two-volume biography of Conway.

Stafford native Moncure Conway, seen in 1849, five years before he went public in Framingham, Mass., with his anti-slavery views, became the South’s most radical abolitionist. He was a student at Harvard Divinity School when he addressed New England reformers on the Burns case. (DICKINSON COLLEGE)

By July 4, when antislavery advocates gathered in Framingham for their annual picnic, he’d made up his mind.

There, Garrison exhorted the huge throng to press ahead with their crusade. He held up commissioner Edward Loring’s decision in the Burns case and then the Constitution, setting them afire and declaring “So perish all compromises with tyranny! And let all the people say, Amen!”

Conway took the lectern, introduced by reformer and orator Wendell Phillips. The crowd cheered. He spoke “from the depths of a soul very strongly stirred,” reported Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator.

Previously, “he had had his lips padlocked, because, in Virginia, they not only had slaves, but every man with a conscience, or even the first throbbings of a conscience, is a slave,” Conway told listeners.

“It was characteristic of the Southern people to become insane on some subjects,” The Liberator reported his saying, “and he believed that they were very nearly insane on the subject of slavery. People of delicacy and tenderness in other respects, who have generally only kind feelings towards other people, as soon as anyone mentioned that subject, no matter if the were their own brother or even their child, they denounced him for it, if he could not feel it in his heart to support that institution.”

Word of the speech filtered back to Virginia, d’Entremont said, and “prompted his irritated father to warn him not to come home, for his own safety.”


Conway grew only more free-thinking.

“Seeing someone he’d known in Virginia treated that way and watching the fugitive slave law implemented showed him that, in a sense, there was no such thing as a free state,” Conner said. “The Burns case set him on the road to advocating abolition and complete emancipation. Ending slavery, he thinks, is the only thing that can bring the war to a quick end.”

The Moncure Conway House, a private residence in Falmouth, in now part of the national Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The property is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was home to Conway and his family, who were prominent Virginia aristocrats and slaveholders. (THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

In time, his outspokenness cost him the pulpit of Unitarian churches in Washington and Cincinnati.

By early 1862, Conway was urging immediate emancipation, saying it would prompt the South’s slaves to withhold their labor, and curtail more of the Civil War’s bloodletting. He sounded that theme in a speech at the Smithsonian Institution and in two meetings with Abraham Lincoln, but found the president too cautious about ending slavery.

“Like most zealots, he had no appreciation for Lincoln’s need to keep the border states in the Union,” Conner says. (Early in the war, the story goes, Lincoln remarked, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”)

“Conway was an idea person, not a political actor. But he had great ideas. That’s why people need to know he existed,” Conner said. “He was a visionary far ahead of his time.”

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029