Since the election, my daily historical reading has taken on a different tone. Not in the sense of what I am reading, which hasn’t changed. But rather, my reactions to it are quite different. The repeal of Reconstruction makes me even angrier than before, the failures of the civil rights movement to go further moved from hopeful that we can revisit it in the future to extremely tragic, the labor history more hopeless, the naked and ugly white supremacy of the 19th century newly relevant, the history of capitalism largely a capitulation to the system that often doesn’t challenge it, and the environmental history less relevant. Maybe this will change over time. But it’s all framed by what is happening right now. Given all of this, I figured that it might be useful to write up thoughts about the past that could address what is happening now. This could be an occasional series.
In the last few days, I have been wondering what is the next step in the protests against Trump. That’s especially true in the context of the continued Muslim ban that has affected the lives of tens of thousands of people in this country, not to mention those outside the country. We have made our anger and outrage well-known. It’s received a lot of attention. It also hasn’t made one difference to Trump and Bannon. That’s hardly surprising. Protest doesn’t make presidents change their policies. Rather, it builds momentum for larger movements that will elect people that will change those policies and influences politicians to move slightly toward what you want.
But I have to wonder where we go from here. Continued protests, less large but often in random places around the nation have kept some pressure on. If we hold another giant protest on Sunday, it would be great but it wouldn’t make America less fascist either. And this is an issue where we can’t necessarily intervene very easily. These are issues that happen behind security in airports. That’s hard to move upon directly.
However, I do think we need to be figuring out how to up the ante in these protests because that is going to be necessary. If the next airport protests ended up with the storming of the gates and the mass arrests that would create, that’s actually not the worst thing in the world, if the people doing are trained to do so. And I suspect but don’t know that some of that training is beginning to happen. Moreover, given the likelihood of increased deportations, we can think about how to resist that deportation directly. Eventually, physical intervention is going to be necessary to save our friends, family, and allies. And that’s something I want to encourage because it may well be the only way forward.
That brings me to the Fugitive Slave Act and the inability to implement it in Boston. The passage of that law in 1850 led to tremendous anger in the North. For most northern whites, they didn’t really care about the fate of slaves, but many more were outraged by the idea of someone being kidnapped off the streets and returned to bondage. In Boston, that anger led to massive physical resistance. And that’s worth remembering as a model on how to resist Trump’s deportations today, especially in light of security forces that may well be openly aligned with fascism.
As a slave owned by Charles Suttle of Alexandria, Virginia, Anthony Burns had many privileges. He was allowed to hire himself out. He supervised the hiring out of four other slaves owned by Suttle. He had the freedom to take on additional jobs, as long as he paid his master a fee. He joined a church, where he became a preacher. He learned to read and write. Still, Anthony Burns was not content. At an early age he had learned that “there [was] a Christ who came to make us free” and felt “the necessity for freedom of soul and body.” In 1854, he took steps to find freedom. While working in Richmond, Burns boarded a ship heading north, to the city of Boston.
Burns arrived in Boston in March — a fugitive, but free. This new-found freedom, however, would be short-lived. Soon after his arrival he sent a letter to his brother, who was also a slave of Charles Suttle. Even though the letter was sent by way of Canada, it found its way into the hands of their master.
A few years earlier, Suttle could have expected little help from a northern state in recovering a fugitive slave. Nine states had personal liberty laws declaring that they would not cooperate with the federal government in the recapturing of slaves. But with the recent passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, a component of the Compromise of 1850, the law was on Suttle’s side.
Suttle travelled to Boston to claim his “property,” and on May 24, under the pretext of being charged for robbery, Burns was arrested. Boston abolitionists, vehemently opposed to the Slave Act, rallied to aid Burns, who was being held on the third floor of the federal courthouse. Two separate groups met at the same time to discuss Burn’s recapture: a large group, consisting mainly of white abolitionists, met at Fanueil Hall; a smaller group, mostly blacks, met in the basement of the Tremont Temple.
The meeting at the Tremont Temple was quickly over. Those present decided to march to the courthouse and release Burns, using force if necessary. The meeting at Fanueil Hall lasted much longer. The group there debated the course of action. When the intentions of the Tremont Temple gathering were announced, however, the meeting abruptly ended. About two hundred citizens left Fanueil Hall and headed to the courthouse.
The crowd outside the courthouse quickly grew from several hundred to about two thousand. A small group of blacks, led by white minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, charged the building with a beam they used as a battering ram. They succeeded in creating a small opening, but only for a moment. A shot was fired. A deputy shouted out that he had been stabbed, then died several minutes later. Higginson and a black man gained entry, but were beaten back outside by six to eight deputies.
Boston inhabitants had successfully aided re-captured slaves in the past. In 1851, a group of black men snatched a fugitive slave from a courtroom and sent her to Canada. Anthony Burns would not share the same fate. Determined to see the Fugitive Slave Act enforced, President Franklin Pierce ordered marines and artillery to assist the guards watching over Burns. Pierce also ordered a federal ship to return Burns to Virginia after the trial.
Burns was convicted of being a fugitive slave on June 2, 1854. That same day, an estimated 50,000 lined the streets of Boston, watching Anthony Burns walk in shackles toward the waterfront and the waiting ship.
A black church soon raised $1300 to purchase Burns’ freedom. In less than a year Anthony Burns was back in Boston.
I don’t want to trivialize what physical resistance to Trump will look like. It’s not fun. There are real consequences for those involved. People doing this need discipline and training, not Black Bloc tactics that don’t help except when they are actually punching Nazis. But we are going to have to raise the stakes of protest if we are to match the forces that are coming. Learning how past protest movements have done that is important. And the physical resistance to the capture of Anthony Burns and the aftermath that effectively made the Fugitive Slave Act void in Boston is a good place to start.