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John Anderson's Story

Pt 2: A Political Symbol, International Intervention, and Return to Africa

By Angel Panag

Sketch of John Anderson. Stock Photo.

At the time that John Anderson would go to trial, the opinions of law makers reflected the inconsistency of Canadian attitudes towards people of African descent. On the one hand, authorities justified segregation and separation along ethnic lines, while trying to stop non-white immigration. Meanwhile, the same lawmakers were fiercely anti-slavery, asserting all should be considered equal under the law. They could both look down on the ills of American society, while simultaneously upholding the discrimination and oppression of Black Canadians. 


A Political Symbol

The Crown and the United States signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842, which would allow for people to be returned across borders in cases of serious crimes such as murder. The attorney general presiding over the case was John A. MacDonald, who would later become Canada’s first prime minister. MacDonald was a skilled politician who is said to find the appropriate moment to “foil an enemy or make a valuable friend”. Anderson’s attorney Samuel Freeman, wrote to MacDonald stating that a man who took another’s life while escaping the horrors of slavery couldn’t possibly be held liable of murder. The Hamilton lawyer argued that Anderson should be held liable for committing manslaughter instead, a charge for which he could not be extradited under the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. MacDonald disagreed with Freeman and offered no resolution to the case. All the while Anderson sat in a Brantford jail cell awaiting his fate.

At this time, the Hamilton and Toronto press was fiercely against John A. MacDonald and his policies. They turned John Anderson’s case into a political matter, choosing to report in his favour and against MacDonald. The reporting of the press outraged the Canadian public who saw John Anderson as a symbol of resistance against American tyranny. MacDonald caught wind of the changing public opinion, and changed his stance on the matter entirely. He even offered to cover Anderson’s defence completely using public funds. MacDonald’s support of Anderson was likely a political display rather than an act of anti-racist solidarity - as he would later go on to authorize the Indian Residential School system.

Samuel Freeman argued that John Anderson should be released on the grounds of Habeas Corpus. Becoming part of English Law in 1679, this is a foundational legal principle that might allow for a prisoner’s release if their detention is ungrounded and unlawful. Freeman argued that Anderson should be brought in front of the judges so they can determine whether Habeas Corpus should apply, and Anderson be released.


An International Battle

The case became a matter of international concern for the United States, Canada and Britain. The US State Department formally requested Anderson be immediately returned to the United States. A Detroit newspaper was perplexed that the same Canadians who are not comfortable living near people of African descent would so fiercely defend Anderson. Wealthy Southerners feared that news of his acquittal would empower enslaved Africans to also seek freedom. Desperately trying to maintain peaceful relations with the United States, the British Embassy asked Canada to return Anderson to face trial in Missouri. The public attention of three nations shifted to the Brantford jail where Anderson was being kept. Brantford’s magistrate, William Matthews, wanted the proceedings to occur in Brantford under his watch. He was determined to make an example out of John Anderson. However, bowing to international pressure Matthews transferred the case to Osgoode Hall in Toronto.

At Osgoode Hall, three of Canada’s most skilled lawyers were summoned to argue against Anderson. Defending him was Samuel Black Freeman, a fierce abolitionist born in Nova Scotia and based in Hamilton. Freeman was said to be an excellent attorney who had “few equals”. Important too was the climate of the city where the case would be heard. Toronto had a population of 44,000 at the time, of which 1,000 residents were Black. Unlike in Brantford, overt racism was far more rare, with many white residents supporting the abolitionist cause.

Osgoode Hall in Toronto. Stock Photo.

The case was heard over several weeks, and decided on December 15, 1860. Presiding over the trial were judges John Beverley Robinson, Archibald McLean and Robert Easton Burns. Fearing riots, almost the entire Toronto police force were stationed at the courthouse - with a military regiment on standby. Dozens of petitions, testimonies, protests and resolutions were brought forward during the trial. The judges’ ultimate decision relied heavily on the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. In a 2-1 split decision, they ordered John Anderson to be extradited to face trial in the US. The public was furious. Seeing the decision as a cause to action, Canada saw massive protests in cities across the country.

Under great pressure, the British government intervened - requesting that John Anderson be freed on the grounds of Habeas Corpus. The Canadian government saw this British interference in their courts as a major misstep, as well as a threat to their sovereignty. The intervention also deeply soured American and British relations, which had taken the last twenty years to rebuild following decades of conflict. So a man who had only desired to live free became the centre of an international quarrel. In a third court appearance, he was finally freed on the technicality that the warrant for his arrest did not specify whether he was wanted for murder or manslaughter. He left Osgoode Hall to be welcomed by members of the press, as well as hundreds of supporters who stood in the frigid cold awaiting his freedom. In the crowd, people from the Black communities of Brantford, Simcoe, Toronto and beyond who saw him as an ordinary hero who stood up to oppression.

The discourse that followed led to an 1861 Act which removed much of the power magistrates had over extradition cases. People like William Matthews would never again be able to exercise such uncontrolled power. The decision also helped create the British Habeas Corpus Act of 1862, which limited the colonial powers Britain held over the legal systems of its dominions. This in turn helping to strengthen Canadian sovereignty.


Return to Africa

Following his release, John Anderson emerged as a symbol of the struggle against slavery. Far from his quiet life as a tradesmen in Caledonia, he became a coveted speaker for the abolitionist cause in Canada and Britain. He asked Black audiences, and white allies to join together in the struggle against human bondage. The Anti-Slavery Society of Canada arranged for a grant of 100 acres, where he could live and farm for the rest of his days (The Odyssey). Anderson, however, sought a different life - one far from his experiences as a Black man in North America. After learning to read and write in Britain, he bought a one-way ticket to Liberia, West Africa. Upon arriving in Liberia, there is no further record of his life. He likely settled alongside the Americo-Liberian community, descendants of enslaved Africans who had returned to settle on the continent. It can only be assumed that John Anderson lived the rest of his days out of the public eye, finally a free man.

A ship repatriating formerly enslaved people to Africa. Stock Photo.


Felons of Hamilton, Halidmand and Brant - John D. Ayre - 2000

The Odyssey of John Anderson - Patrick Brode - 1989

Blood and Daring - John Boyko - 2013

John Anderson, Fugitive Slave - William Teatero - 1986

Behind Bars: Inside Ontario’s Heritage Goals - Ron Brown - 2006

African Hope Renewed: Along the Grand River - Angela E. M. Files - 2004

The Anderson Fugitive Case - Fred Landon - 1922

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