Cover: The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston, from Harvard University PressCover: The Trials of Anthony Burns in PAPERBACK

The Trials of Anthony Burns

Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston

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$31.00 • £26.95 • €28.95

ISBN 9780674908505

Publication Date: 02/15/1999


431 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

20 halftones (19 to run as "mock "insert, plus frontispiece


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[Von Frank] provides a gripping history of the case, which in his interpretation was a touchstone for all kinds of political and intellectual passions of the pre–Civil War period… What most distinguishes von Frank’s book from previous treatments of the subject is its discussion of the growing social involvement of the New England Transcendentalists. Von Frank convincingly demonstrates that Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were not mere philosophical dreamers aloof from social problems, as is often claimed. To the contrary, he argues, Emerson’s philosophy, dedicated to independent thinking and moral action, sparked the outrage over Anthony Burns. As von Frank puts it, ‘Emerson was a force in antislavery because of his idealism, not in spite of it’… After reading this book, one is convinced that the ordeal of Anthony Burns was instrumental in reminding Americans of both the meaning and the responsibilities of freedom.—David S. Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review

Von Frank presents a strong narrative line: from Burns’s arrest, to his trial, to his return and mistreatment in Virginia, to his eventual purchased freedom, to the multiple consequences of this stunning sequence of events on Greater Bostonians. Through this narrative appear a cast of compelling characters… Most of all, after reading this important and dramatic book, we can never again see Emerson as an idealist who transcended politics. On the Fugitive Slave Law, he said ‘I will not obey it, by God.’ Emerson inspired the best minds and stoutest hearts of his day to follow his ideas and his example.—Shaun O’Connell, The Boston Globe

On the level of story-telling, von Frank’s book is a joy to read. As a primer on the anti-slavery movement in the Northeast, this book provides a superb tutorial on the social and ideological forces that propelled this country towards the Civil War. But I recommend this book primarily for what it teaches about the role of ideas and of intellectuals in bringing about social change. This is a deeply compassionate book that says much about who we are as Americans.—Daniel R. Williams, New York Law Journal

Von Frank’s look at this crucial bit of history is a remarkably well-written intellectual exercise, and a joy to read.—John C. Walter, The Seattle Times

[This] excellent [book]…provides a vivid history of the legal, cultural, and intellectual upheaval engendered by the trial of Anthony Burns, who was unmistakably, to use von Frank’s fine phrase, an ’innocent victim of a guilty law.’—Gregory J. Sullivan, The Trenton Times

Mr. von Frank’s cinematic book tells the interior story of the Burns case, a case that in the spring of 1854 absorbed a corner of the country as fully as the recent O.J. Simpson case absorbed the whole nation—and with a great deal more moment. While historians once explained what happened in rolling prose, they now prefer to send us news clips, as it were, from the past. And this is Mr. von Frank’s method, used with great skill, blending his narrative thread with letters, newspaper reports, diaries and other contemporania of the principals. For those who wish to understand Boston’s (and much of the Northeast’s) attitude toward slavery, this book is a must. For though many see abolitionist Boston as a monolith, an idealistic city on a hill, there is much more to be said.—Duncan Spencer, The Washington Times

Like Barbara Tuchman, von Frank makes history read like fiction. With the immediacy of reenactment, he tells of the Northerners who protested when Anthony Burns, a Virginia Slave, ran away to Boston and was ordered returned under the Fugitive Slave Law… His lively sources span from notes on scrap paper to published poetry… This is a most entertaining and informative view of history and an excellent study of the 1850s in Boston. Von Frank should also be commended for arguing that history is affected by ideas as much as people. If ideas lead, as in this instance, to personal freedom and social equality, we can only hope he is right.—Kevin Grandfield, Booklist

[In] the first modern analysis of the [Anthony Burns] case…von Frank focuses on the cases’s impact on American thought and culture, particularly Emerson’s Transcendentalists, [but] the case’s sheer drama drives the narrative.People’s Weekly World

A complex cultural story of how the trial of an escaped Virginia slave brought the distant horror of slavery to the attention of North America.Anti-Slavery Reporter

Von Frank has written a provocative, stimulating defense not only of Transcendentalists but of a style of history that elevates events over trends, the creative individual over the masses, and rationality over social causation.—Phyllis F. Field, Civil War History

This book explores the 1854 trial of fugitive slave Anthony Burns in the context of the overlapping intellectual, cultural, and political networks of antebellum Boston and argues that the case was the critical turning point in converting Massachusetts from tolerant unionism to radical abolitionism… Propelled by the desire to demonstrate the impact of ideas on events, von Frank has written a dramatic and detailed narrative, immersing his readers in the intricacies of the case and the city, capturing the colorful, the contingent, and the bizarre. The author has made excellent use of newspapers, public records, and the memoirs and diaries so abundantly available from literate Yankee New Englanders in the 1850s… The work will have a significant impact on scholars reconsidering antislavery.—Carol Lasser, Journal of Southern History

Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with the United States during the turbulent 1850s knows about the arrest and trial of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns; but no one before has told the story with greater interest and narrative skill (one suspects some enterprising producer has already purchased film rights to this book) or understands better its meaning to such figures as Emerson, Dana, Higginson, Alcott, Conway, Thoreau, Whitman, and Parker, as well as to thousands of other Americans stumbling into the bloody conflict of the next decade.Nineteenth-Century Literature

No one has examined this complex cultural story so exhaustively or reflected at such length on its literary, legal, political, religious and social manifestations. And no one has taken greater pains to demonstrate the part of the New England intelligentsia in effecting social change.—Daniel Aaron, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

Albert von Frank’s The Trials of Anthony Burns is a brilliant recreation of one of the most memorable episodes in the antislavery crusade. Offering insightful and original portraits of such men as Theodore Parker, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and, most notably, Ralph Waldo Emerson, von Frank shows how the rendition of the runaway slave, Anthony Burns, led to what he aptly calls a ‘pocket revolution’ in Northern thought. After this brutal display of the power of the slavocracy, intellectuals came to understand that it was no longer possible to compromise with the South.—David Herbert Donald, Charles Warren Professor of American History, Emeritus, Harvard University

Von Frank writes what is almost a nonfiction novel, letting us feel the confusion, often muddled idealism, and bolts of surprisingly violent activity. Since many of the actors in this drama were men and women of intellect, their ideas influenced their action as much as their action influenced their ideas.—Barbara Packer, author of Emerson’s Fall

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