Mapping Thoreau Country

Visit the Danforth Museum in Framingham.


Thoreau delivered an impassioned speech, "Slavery in Massachusetts," in Framingham, on July 4, 1854.

Harmony Grove, Framingham, Massachusetts

On May 24, 1854, fugitive slave  Anthony Burns was arrested and jailed in Boston while Massachusetts officials arranged for his return to his master in Virginia.  The Burns case, which closely resembles that of Thomas Sims, a fugitive slave who had been returned to bondage from Massachusetts three years earlier, fueled the ire of abolitionists as it underscored the Commonwealth's continuing complicity in slavery despite its legal termination in the state during the 1780's.   For the anti-slavery forces, Burns' capture was tantamount to kidnapping, a charge that became increasingly hard to deny after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law put all blacks in danger of being apprehended and sent into servitude in the South even if they had been born free in states where slavery no longer legally prevailed.

Burns' rendition to captivity in Virginia ignited a wave of support for William Lloyd Garrison's relatively radical position that there could be no political union with slaveholders.  Making this point most dramatically at the annual gathering of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Framingham on Independence Day, 1854, Garrison first burned a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law, which required the rendition of fugitive slaves from free states, then set a copy of the U.S. Constitution ablaze.   "So perish," Garrison declared as the document went up in flames, "all compromises with tyranny."

Some of the most prominent abolitionists of the period shared the stage that day, including Wendell Phillips, whose right to speak at the Concord Lyceum had been vigorously defended by Thoreau and others in 1845, and Sojourner Truth,  a former slave who started her career as a circuit speaker for progressive causes while living in an anti-slavery spiritual community in Florence, Massachusetts from 1843 to 1857.

Having prepared his remarks over the previous two months, Thoreau clearly designed his turn at the podium to provoke a spirited response from a crowd that was variously estimated in newpaper accounts as numbering from 500 to as many as 2,000.  In "Resistance to Civil Government," published in 1849, he had denounced the evils of slavery and imperial expansion, but suggested that it might yet be possible to withdraw from the political scene and still live a self-respecting life.  In his speech in Framingham, in contrast, he called on his sympathetic listeners to recognize that the Fugitive Slave Law had ended any hope that the people of Massachusetts could persist in their usual pursuits:

"I dwelt before, perhaps, in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not dwell wholly within hell. The site of that political organization called Massachusetts is to me morally covered with volcanic scorise and cinders, such as Milton describes in the infernal regions."  Under these conditions, no one could afford to remain indifferent.  "If we would save our lives," he concluded simply, "we must fight for them."

Garrison's Liberator noted in its July 7, 1854 issue that Thoreau had delivered "portions of a racy and ably written address" and promised to publish the full text, which it did a few weeks later.  In August, Thoreau's friend and sometimes literary agent, Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Daily Tribune,  reprinted it under the title, "A Higher Law Speech," describing its author as "the Simon Pure article," whose words evinced "a racy and piquancy and telling point which none but a man fully in earnest and regardless of self in his fidelity to a deep conviction ever fully attains."

Declaration of Sentiments of the Colored Citizens of Boston