A Fugitive Slave Wins His Freedom

February 18, 1861 is generally remembered as the day Jefferson Davis took his oath as Provisional President of the Confederacy (read Adam Goodheart’s fascinating analysis of Davis’ inaugural speech in Disunion).  But also on that day a brief story appeared in the New York Times, with the headline “Decision in the case of the Fugitive Slave Anderson.; THE PRISONER SET AT LIBERTY.”  The story read:

HAMILTON, C.W., Saturday, Feb. 16.

The final decision in the case of ANDERSON, the fugitive slave, was given to-day. The Court sustained the decision of the Court of Queen’s Bench on the question of law, and was unanimous in discharging the prisoner on a technicality in the commitment. ANDERSON is, therefore, set at liberty. Great joy is manifested, especially among the colored population.

It would have been easy for a Times reader to pass by the story.  It was two sentences long, from Canada, and involved a black man.  A pity, since the underlying case was both fascinating and significant.  Anderson’s story is well summarized in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.  Robert C. Reinders writes:

Jack Burton was a slave of Moses Burton of Fayette, Mo. Jack’s father escaped from slavery shortly after Jack was born and his mother was sold to a slave trader when he was seven. On 25 Dec. 1850 he married Marie Tomlin, a slave who lived near the Burton property. Marie had two children from a previous marriage, and she and Jack were to have at least one child. In 1853 Jack Burton was sold to a farmer in Glasgow, Mo. Soon after, he illegally visited his wife; discovered and pursued by a local farmer, Seneca T. P. Diggs, Burton slew Diggs and escaped. With the aid of abolitionists, Burton made his way to Canada West and settled at Windsor in the home of the mother of Henry Bibb in about September 1853. At this time he took the name John Anderson. He later worked as a plasterer and labourer in Hamilton and Caledonia.

In 1854 the United States government requested Anderson’s extradition but the governor general of British North America, Lord Elgin [Bruce], refused to issue the warrant; however, in April 1860 William Mathews, a Brantford magistrate, jailed Anderson on a charge of murder. Samuel B. Freeman, a Hamilton attorney, secured Anderson’s freedom. Formal charges were then made by James A. Gunning, a Detroit detective, and affidavits were received from witnesses in Missouri which led to Anderson’s reimprisonment in October 1860 on a warrant issued by a three-man magistrate’s court in Brantford charging that he did “wilfully, maliciously and feloniously stab and kill” the Missouri farmer. Freeman, supported by Canadian abolitionists, secured a writ of habeas corpus on 20 Nov. 1860 from the Court of Queen’s Bench in Toronto presided over by John Beverley Robinson. On 15 December the court ruled by two to one that Anderson had committed murder by Missouri law, and that he could be extradited under terms of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. Anderson was, however, momentarily protected by a statement by the court that it would offer no opposition to an appeal to the Court of Error and Appeal.

Canadian and British opinion was almost universally hostile toward the decision of 15 December. Thomas Henning, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada, appealed to the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in London and it applied to the Court of Queen’s Bench at Westminster in January 1861 for a writ of habeas corpus. The court granted this after accepting the applicant’s argument that the court’s writ could, on the basis of precedents, be made to extend to Canada. In Canada news of the writ was denounced by most elements of public opinion as interference in the constitutional powers of Canadian courts. Before the British writ could be served in Canada, however, Anderson’s attorneys appealed directly to the Court of Common Pleas in Toronto; in his decision on 16 Feb. 1861 Chief Justice William Henry Draper discharged Anderson principally on the grounds that the warrant from the Brantford magistrate’s court did not actually accuse Anderson of murder.

The story of John Anderson is significant on several levels.  For escaped slaves in the antebellum United States, Canada was the closest reliable refuge beyond the reach of the Fugitive Slave Act.  While hardly devoid of racism, Canadian society offered African Americans the hope of a normal life in the years before the Civil War.  And since slavery had ended in the British Empire in 1833, by 1861 many Canadians looked on slavery’s continuation in the United States with antipathy.  While white Missourians believed Anderson was a murderous brute, Canadians tended to see his killing of Diggs as legitimate self-defense and were reluctant to extradite him to almost certain death back home.  While Missouri’s demand for Anderson was probably legally valid under the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, simple justice no doubt explains Chief Justice Draper’s dismissal of Anderson’s extradition on a technicality.  It also demonstrates that slavery was increasingly isolating the United States internationally in the mid-19th century, not just in Canada, but in many other Western countries.  This fact would have considerable importance for the outcome of the Civil War even as it freed one man from the burden of his past.

For a more in-depth analysis of the John Anderson case, see Paul Finkleman,  “International Extradition and Fugitive Slaves – The John Anderson Case” Brooklyn Journal of International Law, Vol. 18, No. 765, 1992. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1120306.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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