Almost every chapter in Fault Lines in the Constitution opens with a story. With thanks to Virginia Hamilton’s Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave, here’s one that didn’t make it into the book. It’s about a serious fault line and also about July 4.
Walking along Boston’s Court Street on the evening of May 24, 1854, Anthony Burns, a black man, barely noticed the five men running up behind him until they picked him up and carted him off to the Court House where he was locked in a cell. He pleaded to be let go but his captors ignored him. Instead, the cell door slowly creaked open, and a man peered in.“How do you do, Mr. Burns?” the man slyly asked.
“Master!” the prisoner exclaimed.
This spontaneous outburst doomed Anthony Burns. He could not deny that he was a slave, that he belonged, not in the free Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but to this man, Colonel Charles F. Suttle of Alexandria, Virginia, from whom he had escaped three months earlier.
With the help of an intercepted letter Burns had written to his brother, Suttle had little trouble finding his property. He made his way to Boston and asked the US Marshal to arrest him. Even though Massachusetts was a free state, Burns was not a free man. Thanks to the Fugitive Slave Law, which Congress had passed in 1850, Suttle had more right to demand the return of his slave than he would a runaway horse.
A local newspaper urged readers to “protest against this monstrous and atrocious wrong.” The next night, five thousand incensed citizens gathered at Faneuil Hall where, eighty years earlier, colonists had protested against King George III. Abolitionists tried to free Burns from jail and escort him to safety in Canada but they failed. They also tried to buy and then free him but Suttle refused to sell. After they lost a trial, President Franklin Pierce wired, “The law must be executed.”
On June 2, Burns trudged out of Boston, shackled at his ankles and wrists, to be returned to Virginia. An estimated fifty thousand sympathizers lined the route from the Court House to the wharf. Black bunting hung from upper-story windows. American flags flew upside down. An oversized coffin, inscribed “Liberty,” was raised overhead. Boston seemed to sink beneath the shame.
It had become starkly clear that, despite promises made in the Preamble, the Constitution did not “establish justice” or “secure liberty” after all. On the contrary, it perpetuated slavery. Worse, through compromises the Framers made in 1787, the Constitution built the numbers associated with slavery into Congress and the Electoral College. (We explain how in Chapter 5.)
On July 4, 1854, a month after Burns’ forced return, William Lloyd Garrison, the founder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and about two thousand others, gathered in Framingham, Massachusetts—not to celebrate but to demonstrate. Holding a furled Constitution in one hand and a lighted torch in the other, Garrison intoned, “The Constitution of the United States of America is the source and parent of all other atrocities: ‘a covenant with death, and an agreement with Hell.’” Then, he incinerated it.
Ten years and a Civil War later, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. For the first seventy-eight years of our country, however, legal ownership of human beings created its deepest and most disgraceful fault line.