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This is one of those unfortunate cases…in which, it is, no doubt, a hardship upon the plaintiff to be without a remedy but by that consideration we ought not to be influenced. Hard cases, it has frequently been observed, are apt to introduce bad law.

One of the enduring problems of historical writing is the failure of perspective. Some 21st century historian – who has never traveled more than 300 miles in their life without getting on an airplane – writes in an accusatory tone about the circumnavigators of the globe who took two years to complete the trip in the 18th century. They were primitive, they may have relied on navigation techniques that went back to Ptolemy, they did not respect the sovereignty of the half-naked savages who attempted to slaughter and/or cook them on a regular basis and, perhaps worst of all, they prayed. They prayed before the started their trip and solicited a blessing on the venture, they prayed for help during their trip and when good fortune befell them – be it as little as a clear spring to drink from or the successful return to their homes – they offered prayers of thanksgiving. What an ignorant and primitive gang says the worthy modern who couldn’t find his way to the grocery store with a GPS.

Von Frank is guilty of the same lack of perspective. Assuming Emerson and the rest of the transcendentalist to be correct he builds his case that everyone else was not only wrong but evil. Like the civil rights activists of a century later the New Englander’s could retreat into their lily-white enclaves, enjoy the fruits of a society that prospered on slave labor – even treat the Irish far worse than most Southerners treated their slaves [who were considered valuable property and treated as such] and hypocritically assign the scarlet letter to any who dared disagree.

The problem of course is that when you present only one side of a story what you have produced is not history – it is propaganda.

The trials of Anthony Burns : freedom and slavery in Emerson’s Boston    Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1998 Albert J. Von Frank Fugitive slaves Legal status, laws, etc. Massachusetts Boston Hardcover. xix, 409 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Before 1854, most Northerners managed to ignore the distant unpleasantness of slavery. But that year an escaped Virginia slave, Anthony Burns, was captured and brought to trial in Boston – and never again could Northerners look the other way. This is the story of Burns’s trial and of how, arising in abolitionist Boston just as the incendiary Kansas-Nebraska Act took effect, it revolutionized the moral and political climate in Massachusetts and sent shock waves through the nation.

In a searching cultural analysis, Albert J. von Frank draws us into the drama and the consequences of the case. He introduces the individuals who contended over the fate of the barely literate twenty-year-old runaway slave – figures as famous as Richard Henry Dana Jr., the defense attorney, as colorful as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Bronson Alcott, who led a mob against the courthouse where Burns was held, and as intriguing as Moncure Conway, the Virginia-born abolitionist who spied on Burns’s master.

The story is one of desperate acts, even murder – a special deputy slain at the courthouse door – but it is also steeped in ideas. Von Frank links the deeds and rhetoric surrounding the Burns case to New England Transcendentalism, principally that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His book is thus also a study of how ideas relate to social change, exemplified in the art and expression of Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, Walt Whitman, and others.

Situated at a politically critical moment – with the Whig party collapsing and the Republican arising, with provocations and ever hotter rhetoric intensifying regional tensions – the case of Anthony Burns appears here as the most important fugitive slave case in American history. A stirring work of intellectual and cultural history, this book shows how the Burns affair brought slavery home to the people of Boston and brought the nation that much closer to the Civil War.


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