A secret society called the Anti-Man-Hunting League was organized by Boston abolitionists in 1854 to prevent black people in the “free state” of Massachusetts from being kidnapped and enslaved. Its founders had been outraged to see federal troops hustle Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave from Virginia, through the city’s streets and onto a waiting vessel to be shipped back to his owner. They vowed not to let such an atrocity happen again.
Almost 500 men, white and black, joined the League, which met every two weeks. Members practiced their plan to kidnap visiting slave catchers, who were known to stay at the swanky Revere House, and persuade them, with leaded billy clubs if necessary, to return to the South empty-handed. They never had a chance to test their mettle. Asserting states’ rights in response to the Burns rendition, Massachusetts lawmakers effectively nullified the Fugitive Slave Act. Boston became a sanctuary city for runaway slaves.
Militant, interracial, and nearly forgotten, the Anti-Man-Hunting League epitomizes The Slave’s Cause, a stunning new history of abolitionism by Manisha Sinha, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Abolitionism is the primordial reform movement of American history, creeping into view with the creation of the republic. It spawned other movements, most notably feminism. Whatever their cause, today’s activists look back to abolitionism for inspiration, tactics, and moral authority. No respectable historian today disputes the injustice of slavery. And yet the movement to abolish it remains highly controversial.