Fugitive slaves could travel the Underground Railroad, a “series of local networks” in cities from Virginia to Canada. (Library of Congress)
The Underground Railroad figured prominently in the politics of slavery and freedom in antebellum America. Yet it has confounded modern historians, who have tended either to exaggerate its scope or to dismiss it as largely mythological. In his carefully argued new book, Eric Foner aims to set the record straight. Drawing on his deep expertise in the history of abolitionism, Foner demonstrates that one cannot understand the origins of the American Civil War without taking into account the resistance and activism of fugitive slaves and their antislavery allies.
Foner’s focus is on the beleaguered and intrepid cadre of operatives who ran New York City’s Underground Railroad hub in the 1850s. The city was part of an “interlocking series of local networks” that stretched from Virginia into Canada, constituting the railroad’s Northeastern corridor. The book’s early chapters set the stage, explaining that New York was no bastion of abolitionism but instead a zone of conflict over slavery. Lagging behind other Northern states, the Empire State did not abolish slavery until 1827. Even after abolition, slavery persisted because of an 1817 state law that permitted Southern slaveowners, who thronged Manhattan on business and as tourists, to bring slaves along for up to nine months without those slaves becoming free. Moreover, the problem of kidnapping plagued the city, as it did Philadelphia. Whites routinely seized free blacks, claimed fraudulently that they were slaves and, with the blessing of corrupt local officials, sold them or hauled them off to the South.
These outrages did not go unchallenged. In the 1830s, free black activists in New York, such as David Ruggles and Theodore S. Wright, led a “Vigilance Committee” that combated kidnapping, aided fugitive slaves and lobbied for black civil rights. Working in tandem with white abolitionists such as Lewis Tappan, black activists achieved some notable successes, such as the repeal, in 1841, of the law that had permitted Southern masters to bring their slaves into New York. But fugitives from the South remained in a special legal category, liable, according to the provisions of the U.S. Constitution and a 1793 law, to recapture and rendition. Alarmed by the rise of Vigilance Committees and of antislavery sentiment in the North, Southern slaveholders demanded more vigorous law enforcement.
With the passage in 1850 of a new, more stringent Fugitive Slave Law that enlisted federal marshals and commissioners in slave-catching, the Underground Railroad had to extend its reach beyond the North and into Canada. New York City’s network rose to this challenge, with Sydney Howard Gay, the meticulous and principled editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, emerging as its chronicler and Louis Napoleon, a black porter who worked in Gay’s newspaper office, as its most resourceful agent. Once Foner turns to the stories of these men, his book hits its stride, as he is able to tap a rich and overlooked source: Gay’s remarkable “Record of Fugitives,” which provides detailed accounts of the journeys of about 200 of the more than 1,000 escaped slaves who passed through the city in the 1850s. When cross-referenced with William Still’s equally rich chronicle of fugitive slaves who sojourned in Philadelphia on their way to points north, Gay’s record book makes it possible to explain with great precision both why and how slaves fled slavery.
Fugitives testified to Gay that the primary motivation for slave flight was the physical abuse they suffered at the hands of their masters; the second most prominent motive for escape was the grim prospect of sale. Most fugitives left family members behind in the South, while some ran away to be reunited with relatives who had already fled. Many hoped to return to the South to rescue their family members. Fugitives passing through New York most often escaped in groups rather than individually, and they used a wide variety of means. Some paid ship captains for clandestine passage from Southern ports such as Norfolk to the North; others appropriated horses or carriages or set out on foot. Such ruses would not have been possible had slaves not found whites willing, for moral or pecuniary reasons, to help them — whites such as Albert Fountain of Virginia, whose schooner the City of Richmond ran fugitives through Wilmington.
Foner dispels the lingering aura of myth surrounding the Underground Railroad by documenting scores of stirring escapes. For example, he details the May 1856 flight of four fugitives — Ben Jackson, James Coleman, William Connoway and Henry Hopkins — who set out on foot from Dorchester County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for the distant haven of Canada. They had to run a gauntlet, slipping through the slave state of Delaware and then traversing Pennsylvania and New York, states crawling with slave-hunters who sought to collect the rewards that masters posted for capturing and remanding fugitives. In the end, the four men succeeded, thanks to the ability of local networks to work in concert. Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett secured them passage through Wilmington; Still charted their course from Philadelphia to New York; and Gay sent them to Syracuse and on to Canada. Tubman and Still were African American, Garrett and Gay were white — the Underground Railroad, like the broader abolitionist movement, represented the possibility of an interracial politics in which whites and blacks not only made common cause but also shared leadership roles.
With antislavery newspapers trumpeting its success, the Underground Railroad was by the mid-1850s a quasi-public institution and the target of slaveholders’ growing anger and resentment. But for all its success, the Underground Railroad’s story is not one of linear progress. Fugitives in New York remained on precarious footing; as Foner notes, “New York City’s ties with the slave South seemed to solidify as the sectional conflict deepened.” Not until the Civil War started did the antislavery movement gain inexorable momentum. A mass wartime exodus of slaves from Southern farms and plantations to Union lines motivated Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the belated repeal, in 1864, of the Fugitive Slave Act.
The freedom struggle would grind on, against terrible odds. But the Underground Railroad had provided it with heroes, as beacons to the light the way.