Once again the eminent historian Eric Foner has written a fascinating and important history that helps set the record straight about the period in America before, during, and after the Civil War. While this book focuses on the escape of runaway slaves and especially the support and/or obstacles they encountered in New York City, he places his study within the wider context of American politics at the time.
New York was an important and active center of underground railroad activity. When William Seward was governor, the state enacted several “personal liberty” measures that, inter alia, decreed that any slave entering the state except a fugitive automatically became free. In addition, New York was the home of the largest free black community at that time, making it attractive for fugitives who would need help if they got as far as that state. It also had a sizable liberal white community of abolitionists.
Gubernatorial portrait of William H. Seward In office from January 1, 1839 to December 31, 1842
But there were undeniably many New Yorkers who made fortunes from the slave trade, either directly or indirectly through the cotton industry, and who therefore objected to any acts to alienate the southern states. New York’s “Journal of Commerce” (still in print today), called for repeal of the personal liberty laws of New York and for abandonment of the clearly (to them) absurd idea “that to rob our neighbor of his slave … is a Christian duty.” These businessmen even wanted to allow slavery to spread to the West, all to appease the planters who made them so wealthy.
Foner’s account of the efforts of slaves to get north to freedom emphasizes that, although there were many heroic whites who helped, even their efforts would hardly have been possible “without the courage and resourcefulness, in a hostile environment, of blacks,” ranging from those northern free blacks who served on abolition committees to “the ordinary men and women” who watched for fugitives and did what they could to house them, feed them, and direct them to safety. Because there was a great deal of prejudice against blacks even among abolitionists, black men and women were restricted to jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder, working as maids, waiters, cooks, mariners, and dock workers. Ironically, those same jobs put them in a great position to learn about new fugitives and to help them.
An illustration of Henry “Box” Brown who, in 1849, escaped from slavery in Richmond, Virginia with the assistance of friends and abolitionists, by having himself shipped in a crate mailed to Philadelphia.
This leads to Foner’s point that unlike the impression many Americans have, the phrase “underground railroad” was a metaphor to refer to “an interlocking series of local networks” using a variety of methods – both legal and illegal, to assist fugitives, helping them in many cases to make their way to Canada, where they would not be subject to detection and re-enslavement. Trains had little to do with the process, and moreover, many of the activities of underground railroad were not strictly “underground” at all, but widely publicized.
[The South had a different definition of “Underground Railroad” – one North Carolina newspaper called it “An Association of abolitionists whose first business is to steal, or cause to be stolen, educed or inveigled . . . slaves from southern plantations; . . . to steal him from an indulgent and provident master; to carry him to a cold, strange, and uncongenial country, and there leave him . . . to starve, freeze, and die, in glorious freedom.”]
Foner documents that most fugitives came from the Upper South, since it obviously presented a shorter distance for them to make their way successfully to the North. Nevertheless, and ironically, it was the Upper South that remained in the Union, and the Lower South that decried the “fanatical warfare [of the North] on the constitutional rights of property.”
Foner also wants to make the point that the resolution of the slavery issue in America should not be seen only as a matter of the whites freeing the slaves; the slaves themselves played a large role in impacting the political dialogue about “liberty” and “freedom” and in taking advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves to take up their rightful role as “people” instead of “property.”
The Lower South hated the fugitive situation not only for the obvious one of losing the monetary value of this “property.” A runaway slave gave lie to the notion, much promulgated by Southerners, that life was not difficult under slavery or that slaves were not “contented.” But in fact, many of their own advertisements for runaway slaves gave them away, for the notices included identifying marks of the slaves that were clear indications of abusive treatment, such as visible scars and mutilated body parts.
In another interesting twist, the fugitive slave situation made white Southerners vigorous proponents of federal action to override local laws in order to ensure the return of slaves to their “owners.” For all that Southerners claimed in later years that the Civil War was about “state’s rights,” they were vigorously in favor of federal hegemony in the interest of perpetuating slavery.
Thus the actions of runaway slaves powerfully affected the national debate over slavery and union, especially because the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ratcheted up the tension between North and South and became a key point of contention in the succession crisis that followed.
Much of the book tells the stories both of individual slaves who made the perilous journey north, and of those who helped them, and how they did so. But Foner’s constant intermixing of these stories with a meta-level analysis ensures that we never lose sight of what each and every brave and perilous action meant for the future of the country.
Discussion: There are so many interesting aspects of Foner’s book that should be a part of every student’s history lessons (as should his analyses in other books of the Reconstruction period, even more mired in myth than “the Underground Railroad”). You will even discover that the practice of holding gift bazarres around holiday time to encourage gift exchanges originated as a money-raising idea of abolitionists. For while some runaways needed just enough funds to get them to Canada, others needed to be purchased from their owners when that was the only way to save them from being taken back to the South. (The fate of these recaptured slaves is also very noteworthy. Their owners spent a great deal of time and money to get them back, but then of course they didn’t want them anymore, so they would sell them further South. This allowed owners to recoup their money, punish the slave, and buy someone more docile the next time around.)
Tragically, as Foner conveys, some of the best “characters” in this story have so little written about them. I would love to know more, for example, about Louis Napoleon, a black porter who seemed to have been everywhere helping fugitives; when he died, he was credited with having helped over 3,000 escape!
The viciousness and inhumanity of Southern slave owners really doesn’t get enough attention in history books. While Foner doesn’t specifically attack them, by showing the human costs to slaves so clearly and compassionately, he gives both groups their “due.”
Evaluation: Nothing that can make a lover of excellent history more happy than a new book by Eric Foner. His findings are meticulously researched, and yet he invests his work with so much passion and imbues his words with such a strong sense of justice denied, that one never feels a moment of not being totally invested in learning what he has to share.
Published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2015