Boston Art Commission

« back

Click on thumbnails to view additional images of this piece:

Anson Burlingame


Albion Harris Bicknell


Faneuil Hall  


Faneuil Hall
United States








Oil on Canvas




Anson Burlingame (1820-1870) was a lawyer and noted anti-slavery orator who helped to found the Republican Party in Massachusetts. Abraham Lincoln appointed Burlingame the American Minister to China, where he ultimately negotiated a treaty between the two countries regularizing their relations according to international law. The Chinese in turn appointed Burlingame their minister plenipotentiary to head a diplomatic mission to the United States and the major European countries. While on that mission, he contracted pneumonia and died suddenly in Saint Petersburg. Burlingame’s body was brought to Boston and lay in state in Faneuil Hall and he was later buried in Boston.

While serving in the United States House of Representatives from 1855 to 1861, Burlingame played a vital role in what came to be known as the Sumner-Brooks affair. In 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner made a speech in the Senate against slavery, in which he ridiculed the pro-slavery senator, Andrew Butler.  In revenge, Butler’s nephew, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, entered the Senate chamber and attacked Sumner with a cane as he sat at his desk and continued beating him even after Sumner had fallen to the floor, unconscious. When Brooks received no official censure for his action, Burlingame denounced him in the House as “the vilest sort of coward,” and challenged Burlingame to a duel; Burlingame proposed rifles as their weapons, and to circumvent the American ban on dueling, he chose the United States Navy Yard on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls as the location. Perhaps fearing Burlingame’s reputation as a marksman, Brooks declined to appear, citing his inability to travel safely through “hostile country.”  

Burlingame’s defense of Sumner made him a hero in Massachusetts. His portrait is attributed to Albion Harris Bicknell (1837-1915), and was painted in 1871, a year after Burlingame’s death. Burlingame’s dress and pose is typical for a dignified gentleman of the time, with his dark three-piece suit with frock coat, turned down collar and four-in-hand necktie, and his hand thrust in his jacket in a stance of nobility and stateliness. Burlingame’s facial hair- his bushy beard, moustache, and sideburns- is a decidedly post-Civil War trend, adding gravitas to his already imposing demeanor.

Audio Description: