Hamilton dedicates this biography “in memory of Anthony Burns” and accompanies it with “The Abolitionist Hymn.” In the afterword, she remarks that “he somehow deserved more than a paragraph or a mere mention” in the history of the abolition movement as it related to fugitive slaves. She concludes with this justification: “For once I wanted readers to have a book in which the oppressed slave, a common man, was at the center of his own struggle.” Thus, the central narrative concerns one man’s life but, in Hamilton’s own words, it also “is a narrative history of events surrounding Anthony’s life as well as a biography.” Hamilton engages her readers’ sympathy for Burns by revealing his thoughts and memories while living through the legal ordeal. Yet she also provides a sense of the intense emotions aroused by the fugitive slave issue in Massachusetts, a feeling so inflammatory that military intervention approved by President Franklin Pierce was required to prevent race riots from getting out of hand. Even so, one deputy was killed by citizens attempting to free Burns from his captors, however legally he may have been held.
To create sympathy for Burns as a fugitive slave, while reporting the legal and emotional turmoil surrounding his return to slavery, Hamilton identifies with Burns and those who work on his behalf. In the first chapter, as he is being apprehended, Burns thinks to himself: “Never let a buchra—never let a man who is white—know what you are thinking.” From that clue, Hamilton allows the flashback chapters to account for Burns’s present reluctance to trust even those who come to his defense and for his sense of inevitability when taken aboard ship under armed guard to return with his master to Virginia, which is described in contrast to his...
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The story of Anthony Burns strives to represent the meaning of freedom to young people who may take it for granted. Hamilton noted in her afterword that she “experienced an enormous sense of relief and satisfaction at having at last set free through the word one man’s struggle for liberty.” Known historically as the last fugitive to be returned by a Boston court under the Fugitive Slave Law, Burns is depicted as a real human with fears, dreams, and limitations. He represents the victims of the slave system in his defeat but all humans in his triumph of spirit even before his eventual freedom of body. Thus, his biography enables young readers, in particular, to put a face of reality on historical moments.
This book depicts the major participants in the drama of Burns’s case as persons of their own time, slave and free, who yet share their common humanity with every age and its biases, traditions, and need for law and order, even when the law seems intent on denying human rights in favor of legal rights. Hamilton’s own maternal grandfather was an escaped slave, and her ability to carry her readers through the account of another, more famous escaped slave gains increased emotional validity, without rancor or recrimination, by letting the events and characters speak for themselves in a powerful narrative relevant to the continuing struggle for civil rights for all oppressed people.