The Trial of Anthony Burns

By Roth, Ronica | Humanities, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Trial of Anthony Burns


Roth, Ronica, Humanities


ANTHONY BURNS WAS THE LAST ESCAPED slave in the United States to be returned to the South under the Fugitive Slave Act. His trial in Boston in 1854 sent fifty thousand people into the streets in protest and invigorated the abolition movement in the United States.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years later, the trial that decided Burns's fate is reenacted each week in Boston's federal courthouse for middle and high school students. The students see a play, The Trial of Anthony Burns, and then take on the role of the Massachusetts Senate, which removed the presiding judge from office following the Burns trial. It is part of the Discovering Justice initiative funded in part by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

Acting as state senators, the students grapple with the laws and mores of mid-nineteenth-century America. In the process they learn how different the country's moral landscape was before the Civil War.

In the Burns case, the state had received fifteen thousand petitions from citizens calling for Judge Edward Loring's removal; although he had upheld the law, his decision went against public sentiment.

"They often ask, 'Are you a racist, Judge Loring?'" says Beth Dunakin, law and program director for Discovering Justice. "They learn that judges are humans who have a job to do," says Maria Karagianis, founding executive director. "They learn that democracy is complicated and messy and that reasonable minds can differ."

"Students almost always vote to remove Loring from the bench, believing he should have done the right thing rather than implement the law," says program director Marsha Weinerman. "Two or three groups did come to their own understanding that it was a different time, even though it is deplorable now."

The school groups learn how the Burns trial was a critical moment in the country's history. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 led to blacks being kidnapped on the streets of northern cities and returned to captivity. It created a backlash of abolitionist activity and the passage of new personal liberty laws in the North, which were cited by South Carolina as a grievance in its justification to secede from the Union in 1860. …

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