Boston Vigilance Committee was an abolitionist organization formed in Boston, Massachusetts on June 4, 1841 at the Marlboro Chapel, Hall No. 3. with the mission of protecting fugitive slaves from being kidnapped and returned to their Southern owners in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The organization was led by Theodore Parker, an American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church.
A vigilance committee, in the 19th century United States, was a group of private citizens who organized themselves for self-protection. The committees were established in areas where there was no local law enforcement, or where the local government was ineffectual, corrupt, or unpopular. The groups, despite generally held opinions, were not mobs of unorganized individuals bent on revenge of the moment, but usually well-organized, with charters defining their purposes and official membership lists.
Some were public, but many were secret. Secrecy prevented retaliation by lawless or corrupt organizations and also made it difficult for government officials to pursue criminal charges in areas where the government held jurisdiction. Vigilance committees are not unique to the United States and existed into the 20th century.
In response to the law, the Boston Vigilance Committee began advocating resistance to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law through a variety of means. Members contributed funds to send fugitive slaves on to Canada, and for giving shelter and hiding to slaves making their way to Boston. When slaves were captured, the Committee paid for legal fees, and provided money which allowed escaped slaves to purchase necessities.
Additionally the Committee also carried out more violent resistance. In 1851, members stormed Federal marshals and freed Shadrach Minkins, a slave who escaped from Virginia, and who had been captured in Boston.
Vigilance committees, by their nature, lacked an outside set of checks and balances, leaving them open for excesses and abuse.
In the West, the speed of the vigilance committees and lack of safeguards sometimes led to the innocent being hanged or to their just disappearing. A few committees were taken over by fraudulent individuals seeking profit or political office.
Vigilance committees were generally abandoned when the conditions favoring their creation ceased to exist. In the west, as governmental jurisdiction increased to the degree that courts could dispense justice, residents abandoned the committees.