Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Melvin Patrick Ely


Revisiting the Anthony Burns drama in 1854, the last fugitive slave crisis in Boston, I argue that traditional historical interpretations emphasizing an antislavery groundswell in the North mask the confusion, chaos, ethnic and class tensions, and racial division in the Bay city and also treat Virginia's most famous fugitive slave as an object rather than the Revolutionary and advocate for equal rights that he was. I contend that it was far from clear that antislavery beliefs were on the rise in midcentury Boston. I show that antislavery views had to compete with other less noble, sometimes racist, sentiments and with white Bostonians' concerns about law and order. Many white Bostonians sought to conserve the Union as it was; they did not seek to extend the fruits of the Revolution to a fugitive slave or to their black neighbors. The message that many black Bostonians took from the drama was that they could not depend on their white neighbors, including supposedly friendly abolitionists; they had to unite and look out for their own interests. Reexamining the link between Anthony Burns and the coming of the Civil War suggests that the most significant impact of the crisis was on the white South, not the North. Events in Boston seemed to confirm white Southerners' suspicions that antislavery feelings were on the rise in the North, which fueled their anxiety about the future protection of their interests in the Union. The crisis also accentuated differences between Northern and Southern societies, and white Southerners saw their society, with slavery at its center, as distinctly good. The Burns crisis thus encouraged their defense of slavery as a positive good. Finally, I demonstrate that when Anthony Burns moved to Canada West and joined St. Catharines' vibrant black community, he did not relinquish his fight against slavery; he fled America but not the fight against human bondage.



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