Form and Content
Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave presents the life of Burns in twenty chapters arranged by date, along with an epilogue and an afterword by the author, Virginia Hamilton. The central narrative concerns the events that occurred from May 24, 1854—when Burns was taken into custody in Boston as a fugitive slave—through June 2, 1854—when he was escorted to a ship in Boston harbor to be returned to Virginia with his master. Interspersed among the fourteen chapters detailing the legal struggle to prevent Burns’s return are six chapters recounting his early life and his eventual escape to the North in the winter of 1854. The last chapter also describes his eventual purchase by friends in the North and his brief years of freedom. After two years of education at Oberlin College, Burns became a minister, eventually moving to Canada to be free of persecution. Ill health caused his early death in 1862 at the age of twenty-eight.
The focus on the legal struggle to retain Burns’s freedom by Boston abolitionists provides Hamilton with the opportunity to present the political and moral fervor generated by the Fugitive Slave Law. She discusses this law in the context of the larger concerns over states’ rights and the admission of new states into the union as slave or free.
Hamilton’s interspersed chapters allow Burns to recollect his life story by going deep within himself to escape from the terrifying events swirling around the legal struggle to save him from his slave master. These memory flashbacks occur in sequence to allow the reader access to those experiences over the course of twenty years that drove Burns to seek his freedom.
The chapters describing the actual legal proceedings rely on documentary records, as well as on the biographies and memoirs of the famous people who defended Burns. Hamilton lists some twenty sources in her bibliography, including a biography of Burns published in 1856 to help fund his college education. She also quotes in an appendix the sections of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that provide the basis for the legal proceedings that structure the narrative.