Selected Criticism

Burns, Anthony (1834–1862)
Walker, Linda K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Anthony Burns was a runaway slave who escaped from his owner in Virginia, fled to Boston, and found employment. His previous owner, upon learning of Burns's new life, had Burns arrested and jailed in Boston on 24 May 1854 under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Law. Massachusetts abolitionists were enraged, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson even tried to break Burns out of the Boston jail. The rescue attempt failed, and a thousand federal troops conducted Burns in chains through the streets of Boston to the ship which took him back to slavery in Virginia. Two years later Northern sympathizers purchased and freed him; they then sent him to Oberlin College to study for the ministry, after which he became a Baptist minister in Canada. His health had been bad for years, and he died at the age of only twenty-eight.

The government's handling of the Burns incident motivated Whitman to write "A Boston Ballad (1854)" and to include it the next year in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Although he does not mention Burns by name in the poem, Whitman focuses on the government's violation of individual liberty.


Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850–1860. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1970.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Rossbach, Jeffrey. Ambivalent Conspirators: John Brown, The Secret Six, and a Theory of Slave Violence. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1982.


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