Sermon: The Transcendentalist Activists of 1854 By Allan J. Kone

2020 July 19
by DoMC

The Transcendentalist Activists of 1854
First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn
Allen J. Kone
July 19, 2020

A little over three years ago, a UU minister[1] (whom I have never met) published a sermon that concerned me greatly. In it, he stated:

In 1850, when news of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act reached many towns, churches tolled their bells in lament and resistance. It was said at the time that bells tolled at the Baptist and the Methodist churches, but the Unitarian bells could not ring out because they were stuffed with cotton.[2]

Whoa. I strongly take issue with the “bells stuffed with cotton” statement. I have looked hard, but cannot find any hint of an historical origin. I am sure that it is true that some antebellum New England textile mill owners—some Unitarians among them—benefitted mightily from the cheap cotton produced by slave labor. But, that does not mean that their prosperity dominated the beliefs of the leading Unitarians of their day. We must reckon with the fact that some Unitarians did not fight slavery—and some like John C. Calhoun, our seventh Vice President, even defended and promoted it. But many of our Unitarian ancestors, the visionaries of our movement, believed that we must fight for the rights of the oppressed. These are the Unitarians that represent the ideals of our tradition and the ones we can follow today in our work for racial justice.

In the Spring of 1854, in the streets of Boston, some Unitarians were breaking down doors and risking being shot to protest slavery and fight for the rights of Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave,. Spiritually, at least, they were led by such eminent 19th century Unitarian clergy as Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Samuel May.

            Newcomers to Unitarian Universalism are sometimes amazed to discover the great figures in our history—one learns of such nineteenth-century American giants as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott and Julia Ward Howe. These folks were the transcendentalists–and they were all Unitarians. Emerson was the leading light of this band of free-thinkers, who were inclined to ride their authentic insights into new and disputed theological territory. Their impact reached well beyond religious circles, as any student of early American literature might testify. Yet, the transcendentalists have not always been treated kindly by modern historians.  Their philosophy, to some, is dismissed as dreamy idealism and relegated to a mere footnote of modern thought.

.In my years of reading about the decade leading up to the Civil War, I have come to the conclusion that the transcendentalists were not simply dealers in abstractions. These “deep thinkers” were social revolutionaries. Just the title alone of the John Buehrens’ new book, Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender and Social Justice,[3] strongly sets forth a premise of the widespread scope of societal influence of our forebears—not as isolated authors, but as a community of social activists who shaped progressive American values.

Emerson and his transcendental colleagues were a force in antislavery because of their idealism, not in spite of it. These were the same people who, despite their reputation for inward thinking, jumped into the fray and organized the mass demonstrations of resistance to the imposition of the Fugitive Slave Act. These were the people who conspired with John Brown and gave him financial support. I believe that they changed the course of American history. At the very least, Unitarians had a major hand in the movements that led to the outbreak of the Civil War. Am I saying that Unitarians actually started the Civil War? Perhaps.

Most of us who were reared in the American educational system remember the dreaded 11th grade term paper topic or exam question: “List the causes of the Civil War.” In truth, no matter how many “causes” we discussed, it really boils down to a single cause: the continuance and future of slavery.

None of us, I am sure, wrote about the 1854 Boston trial of a runaway slave named Anthony Burns. Historians are now discovering that this calamity was key to making slavery appear to Northerners as an immediate threat to their lives, not just a distant “peculiar institution” of the South, many miles removed. It was at the heart of a revolution that had its own particular Bastille and riot, that toppled a government in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, destroyed certain political parties and invigorated others.

The people who played major roles in the Burns case and its aftermath were, to an amazing degree, our theological ancestors and part of the circle of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote: “I unsettle all things.” All evil and difficulty—all that he ever wrote against—were the manifold forms of implements thrown in the way of the natural, progressive unfolding and refinement of human power and self-realization. Evolution, change, development, coming-to-be, that for Emerson was the direction of history.

Before discussing the Anthony Burns saga, let’s consider the status of slavery in American society on the eve of that event. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence stated, as we all know, that “all men are created equal”.  Yet, by the time the framers of the Constitution got around to drafting their document ten years later, the revolutionary spirit in the country had begun to wither away. The experience of gaining approval of the Constitution clearly institutionalized slavery wherever it then existed.

The Compromise of 1850 set final boundaries between slave and free territories, but it also contained a new fugitive slave law, which brought the whole machinery of the United States government into play to recover slaves who fled to freedom. This law was soon followed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which set the stage for Kansas to be admitted as a slave state. All over the North, mass meetings and petitions were held to denounce the Nebraska Act bill.

On Tuesday evening, May 25, 1854, the Massachusetts Democratic Party celebrated the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act by firing off cannon on the Boston Common. At about the same time in Boston, U.S. Marshalls stopped a 20-year-old Black man named Anthony Burns in the street and arrested him as a fugitive slave. Burns was taken off to the Courthouse, where he was confronted by his “owner”, a man named Charles F. Suttle.

Burns had escaped from Virginia by stowing away on a Boston-bound ship and was living among Boston’s free Blacks, working in a tailor shop, until he was taken into custody at the behest of his Southern master, who had pursued him into the North. Although Suttle’s attempt to reclaim Burns was justified in the federal Fugitive Slave law, antislavery Northerners saw it as a symbol of the malicious, all-grasping nature of Southern slave power.

The next morning, the Reverend Theodore Parker—a famous Unitarian Transcendentalist—enlisted the aid of the eminent Boston lawyer, Richard Henry Dana—another Unitarian—to defend Burns. Dana was a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee and of the Free Soil Party, both of which insisted that slaves who escaped to the North must be allowed to remain there as free citizens—which, of course, was a position contrary to federal law. Making the argument that he needed time to prepare a plea for the prisoner, Dana convinced the U.S. Commissioner to grant him a two-day stay. In fact, there was no such thing as a “plea” for the prisoner, who was not being charged with a crime. The Fugitive Slave Law allowed owners to claim their property in a summary proceeding, merely by identifying their “property” and presenting proof of ownership. Dana was trying to turn this into a contest based on a claim that Anthony Burns was a citizen of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Boston Vigilance Committee met and debated whether to storm the Courthouse or to let the hearing proceed. The idea of a rescue was divisive. There had been two other instances where mobs in the city had succeeded in overwhelming the officials guarding a runaway slave and had freed the men. However, unable to arrive at a consensus, the Committee decided to hold a freedom rally in Faneuil Hall on Friday night.

The Faneuil Hall meeting was a noisy affair, with a reported crowd of 5,000. Theodore Parker, Samuel Gridley Howe and Wendell Phillips, the main speakers, worked up the crowd. Suddenly, a voice boomed out: “Mr. Chairman, I am informed that a mob of Negroes is in the Court Square attempting to rescue Burns! I move that we adjourn to Court Square.”

The announcement had been planned by the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson–another famous Unitarian Transcendentalist—and some of the more militant abolitionists, who vowed to win Burns’ freedom “by every and any means necessary.” In fact, they were already lurking in the shadows of the Square, armed and waiting for the mob to run over from Faneuil Hall. However, the U.S. Marshal, anticipating trouble, had beefed up his forces with an unattractive collection of deputies, “composed of criminals, informers, pimps and drunken teamsters.” The noise of the arrival of the large Faneuil Hill mob altered Burns’ guards.

Higginson’s crew seized a heavy wooden beam and used it as a battering ram against the Courthouse door. One of the hinges sprang. Then a burst of gunfire from within sent many of the crowd fleeing the square. Still, Higginson and two others went in. In the half-darkness, shots were exchanged. One deputy fell dead; a dozen more attacked Higginson and his two companions with clubs. Somehow the trio managed to retreat and back out of the door. In the midst of the retreat from the Courthouse, Higginson saw the normally restrained and quiet philosopher, Bronson Alcott (father of  Louisa May Alcott and another Unitarian transcendentalist) breaking out of character, attempting to rally the crowd for another assault. Alcott stood alone on the steps, a walking stick in his hand, turning to the retreating raiders and shouting: “Why are we not within?” Lacking courage and leadership, the mob drifted away.

Although the outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion, the next day, a Saturday, Dana successfully argued for a continuance until Monday.  Just before the day’s proceedings were finished, a lawyer for the slave owner, while arguing a small point, suddenly stated that his client, Suttle, would be willing to sell his man Burns here and now. The court ordered an adjournment.

By 11:00 o’clock that night $1,200 had been raised by popular subscription. The local U.S. Commissioner called the two sides together and wrote out an agreement. Suddenly, one of Suttle’s lawyers raised an objection: it was illegal under Massachusetts law to sell a slave in the state. The slave owner had obviously changed his mind.

The hearing resumed on Monday and continued through Wednesday. Huge crowds gathered in Court Square each day. They now included not only residents of Boston, but people from all over New England who came in by train. Attorney Dana argued the inconsistencies in the slave owner’s story and constructed a compelling argument that the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional. As newspaper reporters filed their stories by telegraph, the news reports fanned national interest—North and South. Meanwhile the Massachusetts’ Governor called out several companies of the state militia; President Franklin Pierce ordered federal troops to maintain order, and through his Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, mobilized companies of the Marines and of the Army.  Boston was starting to resemble an armed camp with over 2,000 soldiers.

After the U.S. Commissioner rendered his decision against Anthony Burns, state and federal troops escorted Burns, in hand irons, through the city to a U.S. Navy ship that was to carry him back to Virginia.  Newspapers reported that all businesses were closed, that “the city was draped in mourning” and that nearly 50,000 people lined the streets, assailing the grim procession with shouts of ‘Kidnapper” “Slave Catcher! Shame! Shame”. Outrage swept New England. Even many who had been indifferent to slavery came alive with indignation.  One observer of the trial, textile manufacturer Amos A. Lawrence observed: “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise Union Whigs & waked up stark mad abolitionists.”

The Burns case made slavery appear to Northerners to be an immediate threat to their concept of American democracy—not just something distant in the South. A remarkable number of people were stirred to creativity and action. Walt Whitman wrote an ironic piece entitled Boston Ballad, soon to be incorporated into his revolutionary volume Leaves of Grass. 

Unitarian ministers like Theodore Parker and Octavius Brooks Frothingham delivered memorable sermons portraying Burns as a modern Jesus scarified to slave power. John Greenleaf Whittier composed a moving poem The Rendition, in which he wrote, that at the sight of Burns being led through Boston’s streets back to slavery, “The solid earth beneath my feet/Reeled fluid as the sea.”

The moral conscience of the North was aroused as it never had before. At an antislavery rally in Framingham, Massachusetts on July 4th, orators used Burns’ story to challenge the laws of the land. In s shocking gesture meant to reveal the distance of the nation’s ideals and practices, William Lloyd Garrison burned copies of the Fugitive Slave Law and the U.S. Constitution as a large crowd chanted “Amen!” Henry David Thoreau delivered a speech entitled “Slavery in Massachusetts,” declaring that the American system had lost its integrity and purity. The trial of Anthony Burns, he insisted, “was really the trial of Massachusetts.”

Such politically charged rhetoric coming from a contemplative individual like Thoreau revealed the broader implication of the Burns’ controversy. It showed the growing social involvement of the New England transcendentalists. Emerson and Thoreau were not mere ivory tower dreamers aloof from social concerns, as is often claimed. To the contrary, Emerson’s philosophy, dedicated to independent thinking and moral action, sparked this outrage over Anthony Burns. Emerson and his transcendental colleagues were a force in antislavery because of their idealism, not in spite of it. More than a dealer in abstractions, Emerson proved himself a social revolutionary by placing moral principle above human law. Of the Fugitive Slave Law, that “filthy enactment” he said “I will not obey it, by God.” That his closest followers felt as strongly is suggested by the fact that a group of his ardent colleagues, including Theodore Parker and Moncure Daniel Conway were Burns’ most strident defenders. Importantly, no fugitive slave was ever captured in Massachusetts again.

Following the trial, Montcure Daniel Conway wrote a book The Rejected Stone, denouncing slavery, which Abraham Lincoln reportedly read. Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn and George Luther Stearns, all followers of Emerson, persisted in militant activity, arming antislavery Kansas emigrants. Parker, Higginson, Stearns, Samuel Gridley Howe and Gerrit Smith, sometimes known as the “Secret Six,” went even further by providing the financial support of the abolitionist martyr John Brown.

Anthony Burns himself, after being returned to Virginia, was imprisoned and tortured in a slave pen, before being bought out of slavery by sympathetic Bostonians. He appeared for a while on the Abolitionist lecture circuit and then was given a scholarship to Oberlin College. After studying at the Fairmont Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, he briefly served as a pastor of a Black Baptist church in Indianapolis, and later he moved to a congregation in St. Catherines, Upper Canada—a town largely populated by fugitive slaves. He died in 1862 of tuberculosis.

The wide-spread vehement outcries of injustice bred by the case ultimately became the antislavery sentiment that turned out to be the death of both the Whig and the Freesoil parties. Virtually the entire Massachusetts legislatures as well as the Governor were replaced in the November 1854 election. This strong sentiment also gave rise to the Republican Party, which in turn, fostered Lincoln’s presidential victory in 1860, the South’s succession and the Civil War.

So, did Unitarians start the Civil War? Not really. Let’s just say that, in the chaotic events and cries for justice that led to the Civil War, Unitarians such as Parker and Thoreau were at the forefront. They led the kind of work that we continue, as we strive for racial justice in our own time.


[1] The Reverend Sean Parker Dennison is the settled minister of the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Ashland Oregon; he goes the handle “RevSean”.


[2] Dennison, S.P. (2017, May 9) Inherent Worth and Dignity Does Not Mean All Ideas Are Equal. Retrieved from


[3] Buehrens, J. A. Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender and Social Justice. Beacon Press, 2020.

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