On May 24, 1854, Anthony Burns, a young black man working in a clothing store in Boston, was arrested for fleeing from a slave owner in Richmond, Virginia. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, public officials in the free states were required by the federal government to help recapture escaped slaves and return them to bondage. Northerners who refused to help risked heavy fines and jail.
Despite the law, black and white Bostonians rallied around Anthony Burns, appalled that a man should be kidnapped back into slavery within sight of Faneuil Hall, known as America’s “Cradle of Liberty.” A rescue attempt led by black Bostonians failed. Legal attempts to free him under Massachusetts law were blocked by the U.S. Marshal. The Governor refused to act. The U.S. District Attorney sabotaged an attempt to buy Burns’s freedom. Finally a Massachusetts Probate Judge ordered that he be shipped back to Virginia with the man who claimed to own him.
The life of slavery to which Burns was returned could only be called totalitarian. The slavemaster owned all the means of production. Almost all work was forced labor, including that of the children. Because the slavemaster rationed food, clothing, medicine and other basic necessities, many slaves had to seek whatever “after-hours” work they could find, in order to supplement their meager provisions and be able to survive. Whenever the master contracted out his slaves to others, he took most of the pay, leaving only a pittance for the person who earned the money.
There was no freedom of speech, assembly or association. Access to books and newspapers was controlled. Meetings of more than a few people were forbidden and harshly punished. Slaves could not travel without permission. Many religious activities were suppressed.
There was no such thing as due process of law. Any dissenting voices were silenced. At the slavemaster’s whim, slaves suspected of being dangerous, i.e., those who did not readily obey or show the proper attitude of subservience were punished severely. Beatings by the master’s caretakers were common, often resulting in death. But the people responsible for such abuses acted under the protection of the slavemaster and were rarely sanctioned or prosecuted.
This depiction must seem eerily familiar to many Americans. Although it accurately portrays the lives of most slaves in the South in 1854, the information was actually taken from public U.S. State Department documents describing . . . life in Cuba in 1998.
Anthony Burns lives again today in Florida, in the person of Elián Gonzalez, the six-year-old whose mother fled with him from Cuba last November in an attempt (during which she tragically died) to gain liberty. The boy has been ordered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to return to Cuba, to join his father.
Anthony Burns entered the free states illegally; Elián Gonzalez entered a free nation illegally. In 1854, many people thought that Anthony Burns was not entitled to the protection of the Constitution. Most black Americans were regarded as mere chattel of the slavemasters in the slave states. They were denied the inalienable right to freedom. Today, many people think that Elián Gonzalez is not entitled to the protection of the Constitution. He is considered a rightless entity, who can be returned to life in a slave nation because his father — or his father’s master, Fidel Castro — demands it.
Fifty thousand Bostonians lined the streets to watch as Anthony Burns was taken to the ship that would return him to Virginia. He was escorted by Boston police, Massachusetts militia and U.S. Marines. The troops had orders to fire as needed upon the crowd without warning. Along the route to the dock many protesting Bostonians were wounded by armed soldiers.
The people of Boston rightly defended Anthony Burns, but all their legal reasoning, emotional pleas and desperate actions were ineffective. He had escaped from slavery only to be sold down the river by the federal government in repudiation of the principle of individual rights, the very principle our government had been established to defend. As abolitionist Charlotte Forten wrote at the time: “Again has [America] showed her submission to the Slave Power . . . and this by express orders of a government which proudly boasts of being the freest in the world.”
The Florida relatives of Elián Gonzalez are fighting, in the courts and in Congress, to allow him to live in a free country. Let’s see whether our present government will choose to protect this young boy from his totalitarian enslavers.