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New Left Review I/183, September-October 1990

Eric Foner

Blacks and the US Constitution 1789–1989

On 4 July 1854, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison addressed a large Independence Day gathering at Framingham, Massachusetts. [*] This article is the text of the third annual Herbert Gutman Memorial Lecture, delivered at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, 12 December 1989. One month earlier, a federal tribunal in Boston had ordered Anthony Burns, a fugitive from slavery, to be returned to his Virginia owner. Garrison had a long established reputation for outraging respectable opinion by his militant condemnation of slavery and its defenders, North and South. But on this day, he outdid himself. First, he burned a copy of the fugitive-slave law of 1850, under which Burns had been returned to bondage. Then he burned the court decision. Finally, he held aloft ‘the parent of all the other atrocities’—the us Constitution. Calling it ‘a covenant with death, an agreement with hell’, Garrison set it on fire.

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