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'Gateway to Freedom' review: 'Hidden history' of the Underground Railroad

"Gateway to Freedom : The Hidden History of the Underground Railway" by Eric Foner (Norton, January 2015). Photo Credit: Norton

GATEWAY TO FREEDOM: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, by Eric Foner. W.W. Norton & Company, 301 pp., $26.95.

 

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, had once been Frederick Bailey, slave. Once he eluded his captors in Maryland, fled north and reinvented himself, he evolved into the great black leader he was meant to be.

Harriet Tubman made her escape, too, yet returned many times to the South to liberate other victims of American slavery. A white ally disguised Henry "Box" Brown in a wooden crate and dispatched him northward. He, too, arrived safely in free territory.

The stories of fugitive slaves and slavecatchers, Southern planters and Northern abolitionists continue to haunt the American imagination. In legend, a clandestine organization nicknamed the Underground Railroad was the key institution for harboring and escorting those slaves lucky enough to escape to freedom. According to Eric Foner, the renowned professor of history at Columbia, this is true only if qualified in several ways.

First, the railroad was not a highly organized structure. It sprang up in different cities at different times in response to different conditions. Second, it was not a national organization, but a series of local networks with limited connection to each other. Third, it cannot be characterized as an operation run solely by benevolent whites for the benefit of blacks. Vigilance Committees, as they were called, set up by free blacks in such cities as New York and Philadelphia were essential to keeping fugitives out of harm's way. Sympathetic whites, of course, were active in the movement by raising money, challenging slavecatchers in court, highlighting the immorality of slavery in the media and hiding fugitives in their homes.

Earlier historians have documented most of these points, but Foner's subtitle about "hidden history" refers to his unprecedented focus on railroad activities in New York City. The city may be the epicenter of liberalism today, but in the pre-Civil War era, it was anything but. New York shipping, banking and insurance interests were inextricably linked to the cotton trade. Mayor Fernando Wood was a notorious Southern sympathizer. City Recorder Richard Riker routinely gave his imprimatur to slavecatchers snatching blacks off city streets.

As Foner notes, it was upstate New York that unabashedly flew abolition's flag. Governor William Seward, who later joined Lincoln's cabinet, championed laws that would thwart the hated Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required the return of escapees. In Albany, black activist Stephen Myers marched runaway blacks through the streets without fear of interference. In Syracuse, Jermain Loguen, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister, operated openly as the "underground railroad king."

(Still, as we know from "Twelve Years a Slave," even free blacks in this region might be kidnapped and hauled southward to misery.)

Because the law regarded slaves as property, the law necessarily regarded participants in their flight to freedom as lawbreakers. For this reason, the Underground Railroad touched off controversy, even within abolitionist circles. Opponents of slavery debated whether breaking laws and possibly resorting to violence was justified. Was there a higher law of ethical behavior in play?

In the meantime, state law appeared on the scene as an unassuming savior. After the federal Fugitive Slave Act had put many abolitionists in the awkward position of supporting a version of states' rights, many Northern states, like New York, passed laws that made the act virtually unenforceable in their jurisdictions. This was the North's version of the Southern view that federal laws deemed anti-Southern could be ignored, or "nullified."

Between 1830 and 1860, in Foner's estimation, the Underground Railroad across the North steered 1,000 to 5,000 people, most of them men, to freedom. Undoubtedly, its efforts helped spark the coming of the Civil War. Escaping slaves refuted the idea of slave contentment and generated debate about the balance between state and federal authority, between conscience and law.

Other historians have chronicled railroad activities in Midwestern states like Ohio and Indiana, but give Foner credit for highlighting the work of white New Yorkers like Lewis Tappan and Sydney Howard Gay, and especially that of largely forgotten black Americans.

David Ruggles, a circulation agent for abolitionist newspapers and founder of the New York Vigilance Committee, made the phrase "practical abolition" famous by spiriting fugitives to freedom. A laborer named Louis Napoleon offloaded human "cargo" hidden in Southern-based ships. On his death certificate was inscribed his true occupation: "Underground R.R. Agent."

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