As Civil War-era monuments come down across the country, it’s time to raise a new one in Boston. In recent years, hundreds of statues and symbols honoring the Confederacy have been removed from public spaces as the country grapples with the role of slavery in American history. Locally, Harvard Law School abandoned its crest, which was associated with a slaveholding family, and activists continue to call for name changes to institutions like Faneuil Hall, revealing a history of slavery in New England that stretches back to the colonial period and continues to shape the city up to the present.
Dismantling a previous vision of American history creates an opportunity to reflect on what we should celebrate from this difficult period instead. Local organizations like the Black Heritage Trail work diligently to preserve the story of Boston’s important role in the fight against slavery, and statues memorializing Robert Gould Shaw and Wendell Phillips adorn the perimeter of the Common and the Public Garden. But a crucial site, 26 Court Street, remains curiously unmarked, even though it was the site of a protest that moved tens of thousands of Americans to civil disobedience and tripped a domino effect to civil war.
After the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Boston became a battleground in the violent decade leading up to the first shots fired at Fort Sumter. A string of prominent cases involving self-emancipated refugees from the South tested whether Northern state governments — and individual Americans in the free states — would acquiesce to the law that made it a crime to aid or shelter fugitives. When Anthony Burns, who had lived in the city for two years after fleeing a Virginia plantation, was arrested in 1854, Boston abolitionists were determined not to see a man enslaved in Massachusetts.
A crowd formed at an antislavery rally at Faneuil Hall then surged down the street, joining a group of protesters who were attacking the courthouse building where Burns was imprisoned. These black and white men, immigrants and Brahmins, threw stones through the windows of the imposing government building, hacked at the doors with axes, and then took up a ten-foot wooden joist for a battering ram. Smashing through into a crowd of police on the other side, they were beaten with clubs and slashed with cutlasses. Someone drew a concealed pistol and fired; the slug tore through the femoral artery of James Batchelder, who had been deputized as a US Marshall. He died on site.
The protest at 26 Court Street was controversial even within the movement; William Lloyd Garrison, an avowed pacifist, called it “ill-advised.” Newspapers in Boston and New York demanded that the protesters be charged not only with murder but also with levying “war against the union,” suggesting that they be “shot down like dogs.” They cautioned all good citizens, no matter their views on slavery, to stay at home until the matter was settled, warning them that “Burns is in the hands of the law. Those who engage in the work of attempting to take him away from the officers will commit treason against their country.”
But in the days that followed, many Bostonians became convinced that good citizenship required them to break the law. President Franklin Pierce, a New Englander, deployed federal troops to guard against further rescue attempts, pointing the mouth of a cannon into the crowd of civilians that gathered daily on Court Street. After a brief trial, a probate judge bowed to the federal Fugitive Slave Act, remanding Burns to his enslaver. The compliance of local officials with an unjust law stoked the city’s growing outrage.
Burns was marched out of the building in handcuffs on June 2 to a ship waiting in the harbor to return him to Virginia. He was guarded by hundreds of soldiers and militiamen with weapons drawn. They were met by 50,000 people who had turned out to witness and protest his rendition, packing every inch of the streets, hissing and booing, crowding on rooftops, suspending an American flag upside down, and lowering a coffin marked “Liberty” from a second-story window.
Reflecting on the Anthony Burns case the following month on the 4th of July, Henry David Thoreau predicted that although Massachusetts “praises till she is hoarse the easy exploit of the Boston tea party,” in the future “she will be comparatively silent about the braver and more disinterestedly heroic attack on the Boston Court-House, simply because it was unsuccessful!” And he was right: The elaborate Boston Tea Party museum draws crowds of tourists, while 26 Court Street stands without so much as a historical marker to acknowledge Burns and the interracial group of protesters who risked their lives to try to save him, breaking the law in the name of freedom as the heroes of the Revolution had done before them.
Thoreau may have been wrong, however, to call the protest unsuccessful. Amos Adams Lawrence, whose family made a fortune turning Southern cotton into textiles in New England mills, said that even moderate Bostonians had “waked up stark mad abolitionists” after the Burns case. He and others directly inspired by the event bankrolled the antislavery forces that battled for the admission of Kansas as a free state, as well as John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. The protest at 26 Court Street was one in a series of clashes in the 1850s that pushed the country into the Civil War, demonstrating the leading role of abolitionist activism in driving the nation’s reckoning with slavery.
Just as they were called traitors in 1854, today’s voices of protest calling attention to the legacy of slavery are condemned as un-American and divisive. But as our understanding of what constitutes treason and patriotism in the American context evolves, the time is right for a reconsideration of the role of dissent. The Civil War era saw the rise of modern social justice movements that transformed American society, though their work is far from complete. As we grapple with the deep roots and long aftermath of slavery, it’s important to commemorate the fierce resistance of enslaved people like Burns and hundreds of thousands of other Americans who faced off with their countrymen and government to oppose an institution that had been central to their society for centuries. Boston should acknowledge its complex role in the history of this struggle.
Holly Jackson is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the author of American Radicals: How 19th-Century Protest Shaped the Nation.