The Boston slave riot of 1854 was a contest for the soul of Boston in which slavery supporters won the battle but lost the war.
An angry mob of abolitionists tried to free a captured slave and failed, but the struggle awakened fervent anti-slavery sentiment throughout the North. It sent Wendell Phillips on a speaking tour, transformed Ralph Waldo Emerson into an ardent abolitionist and convinced Henry David Thoreau to urge civil disobedience.
Philanthropist Amos Lawrence said, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.”
On the night of May 24, 1854, federal marshals seized 19-year-old Anthony Burns on Court Street and wrestled him into the courthouse on a trumped-up charge of jewelry theft.
Burns was born into slavery in Virginia. When he was 15, his arm was mangled in the sawmill where he was working. He later hired out to work on the wharves of Richmond, where he befriended a sailor from Boston who helped him escape.
He found a series of odd jobs in Boston to support himself. Burns worked in a Brattle Street clothing store when his’ owner discovered where he lived in Boston. Authorities identified him by a scar on his face that looked like a brand and an inch of bone protruding from his wrist.
The arrest horrified Wendell Phillips, the wealthy, 42-year-old son of Boston’s first mayor, and the rest of the city’s abolitionists. It wasn’t so much that the Fugitive Slave Act was being enforced — it had taken effect in 1850. Burns’ arrest came on the heels of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act two days earlier. Kansas would certainly enter the Union as a slave state, and slavery opponents feared slavery could then seep north into Boston as well.
Indignation at Burns’ arrest intensified because of the presence of several abolitionist and women’s rights groups checking into Boston hotels for their annual convention.
The next day Wendell Phillips went to see the terrified Anthony Burns in the courthouse. He then persuaded him to accept legal help from Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
The Boston Slave Riot
A large and furious crowd gathered at Faneuil Hall to protest Burns’ capture. Phillips gave a speech, asking 500 volunteers to surround the courthouse the next day.
Unknown to him, another abolitionist, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, had bought axes and planned to attack the courthouse to free Burns that night. At a pre-arranged signal, the crowd surged toward the courthouse.
The Boston slave riot failed to free the prisoner, but killed a guard in the melee.
As many as a thousand troops poured into the city to restore order as the trial got under way.
After a four-day trial, the judge ordered Burns back to slavery as Phillips watched helplessly in the courtroom. He visited Burns in his cell. “Mr. Phillips,” Burns implored, “has everything been done for me that can be done? Must I go back?”
Phillips replied, “Burns, there isn’t humanity, there isn’t justice enough here to save you; you must go back.”
Richard Henry Dana, Jr., had pleaded in the courtroom for Burns’ freedom for 4-1/2 hours. For his efforts he was attacked by pro-slavery rioters.
On June 2, the governor placed Boston under martial law. Anthony Burns was to be shipped back to Virginia. As guards prepared to march him to the ship, nearly 50,000 people lined the streets, held back by Marines and police officers. Storefronts were draped in black, and people hung out upper windows spitting on the soldiers as the crowd shrieked, ‘Shame! Shame!’ Burns walked through the crowd with his head held high to the ship that would carry him back to Virginia.
Boston would long remember the sight of a solitary black man walking through a gauntlet of federal troops holding back crowds. President Franklin Pierce had hoped that stern enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law would quell opposition to it. But he miscalculated badly. The Boston slave riot intensified feelings against slavery in Massachusetts as the federal troops had seemed to place the commonwealth “under the feet of Virginia.”
Wendell Phillips sank into depression, from which he emerged with fresh resolve to take his anti-slavery message out of Boston to the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes. He had the blessing of his invalid wife, who would spend long weeks at home without him.
Burns wrote to Phillips from a jail in Richmond, Va., asking him to ‘dow all you can for me.’ His owner refused to sell him to abolitionists, who had raised $1,200 for the purchase.
Finally, Anthony Burns was put on the auction block and sold to David McDaniel. McDaniel did agree to sell Burns to the Boston abolitionists for $1,300. He then returned to Boston.
Wendell Phillips arranged for Anthony Burns to attend Oberlin College, where an anonymous donor gave him a scholarship. Anthony Burns would graduate, become a Baptist minister, and die of tuberculosis at the age of 28.
Phillips became the country’s foremost orator against slavery. After the Civil War, he championed the rights of women, Indians and labor. In 1870 he ran for governor of Massachusetts as a labor and temperance candidate. He lost.
Wendell Phillips died on Feb. 2, 1884. In July 1915, a monument was dedicated to commemorate him in the Boston Public Garden.
This story was updated in 2022.