In Slavery in Massachusetts, Thoreau writes:

I have read a recent law of this State, making it penal for any officer of the “Commonwealth” to “detain or aid in the … detention,” anywhere within its limits, “of any person, for the reason that he is claimed as a fugitive slave.” Also, it was a matter of notoriety that a writ of replevin to take the fugitive out of the custody of the United States Marshal could not be served, for want of sufficient force to aid the officer.

To what recent law of this State does the author allude? Whom does he mean by the officer with want of sufficient force? According to my humble understanding, writs of replevin apply only to personal property and not to the private property, and slaves used to be the latter. To whom or to what does the writ of replevin apply in this context?

As I understand it, the United States Marshal is a federal agency. I assume that to apply the writ of replevin is to take the slave detained by the Federal government and transport it back to its master. Does Thoreau describe a situation whereby there was enough men with guns (the United States Marshal) to hunt down a fugitive, but not enough to forcefully transport them back to the slave-holder? Methinks, that was the case before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 - the implementation thereof made provisions for capturing the slaves by granting bonuses and promotions for the officer-hunters).

1 Answer 1


The question raises two points:

  • To what recent law does Thoreau allude?
  • What is meant by "lack of sufficient force" to serve a writ of replevin?

The first point almost certainly refers to the 1843 Liberty Act, known popularly as "Latimer's Law". Latimer was a slave who escaped to Boston, but was there recaptured. Abolitionist meetings were held to campaign for his release, and eventually raised sufficient money to purchase Latimer's freedom from his owner. It created a massive upsurge in Abolitionist feeling - “The Great Massachusetts Petition” for Latimer's freedom collected over 65,000 signatures from Massachusetts voters - which resulted in Massachusetts enacting the Personal Liberty Law. Under this, Massachusetts authorities were banned from assisting in capturing fugitive slaves, and no state property (like jails) could be used to hold them.

The remark about the writ of replevin applies to the specific case of the escaped slave, Anthony Burns, whose arrest and trial in Boston is the subject of Thoreau's piece.

A writ of replevin is a writ authorizing the retaking of property by its rightful owner. Its purpose here is was to have Burns released from prison by allowing him to demand a verdict on whether he was lawfully imprisoned or not - it was definitely not being applied to transport him back to his master! A full account of the process is given in Famous Trials by Professor Douglas O. Linder, but in summary:

The attempt to release Burns from duress by violence having failed, steps were taken to accomplish the same object by legal process. For this purpose resort was had to the Writ of Personal Replevin... The first use of this instrument, for the relief of Burns, was made on the day following his arrest. A writ of replevin was at that time made by Seth Webb, Jr., and delivered to Coroner Charles Smith, who forthwith served it upon the United States Marshal. The answer of the latter was a quiet refusal to comply with the mandate of the writ, on the ground that he held Burns by legal process.

Following this, various meetings were held with the Chief of Police and the Boston Board of Aldermen to see if a solution could be reached.

While this was passing, two citizens of Boston, Samuel E. Sewall and Henry I. Bowditch, were moving in another direction and with a bolder purpose... It was the desire of these gentlemen to have a writ of replevin served with instant dispatch; they were quite prepared to deliver Burns from duress without waiting for the Commissioner's decision. But there was a serious difficulty in the way. Burns was in the custody of an officer who had expressed a determination to resist the state process, and who had a strong civil and military force to back him. It was plain that if the writ was to be efficiently served, if Burns was to be taken out of the Marshal's hands, it could only be done by the aid of a force sufficient to overcome that which he had at his command.

Raising a posse was thought to be out of the question ("it was not to be expected that an undisciplined throng of civilians would be able to make head against the serried ranks and balls and bayonets of the Marshal's United States troops"), and the Governor refused to authorise the state militia to act in this matter. Accordingly, Burns was tried and returned to Virginia.

  • To @claradiazsanchez' excellent notes I would add two references: 1) Matthews, The Term Lynch Law in Modern Philology, Oct. 1904, 2, 2, 173-195. 2) Cutler's 1905 book Lynch-law: An Investigation Into the History of Lynching in the United States with its nod to Matthews and an intro by the eminent American sociologist W.G. Sumner.
    – DJohnson
    Apr 27 at 12:02
  • "...and the Governor refused to authorise the state militia to act in this matter." This is a key point. Thoreau heavily criticizes the governor's inaction in the paragraphs before and after this; this paragraph is part of the same train of thought.
    – MJ713
    Apr 27 at 14:43
  • The text of the 1843 Liberty Act is available online: archives.lib.state.ma.us/handle/2452/93358
    – MJ713
    May 1 at 20:26

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