In Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Foner sets out to rescue the legendary “Underground Railroad” from both oblivion and revisionism, and generally succeeds in this effort. Long a staple of antebellum tales of daring-do inside and out of the classroom,
While the geography of Gateway to Freedom surveys locales like Pennsylvania, Boston and upstate New York, it is set primarily in New York City in the final decades leading up to the Civil War, a largely unfriendly atmosphere for fugitive slaves due to the strong economic ties between the port city and the slave south. Yet, there was a vibrant network of free blacks and white abolitionists who approached the task of rescuing slaves seeking their freedom with an almost religious fervor. The state of New York – more sympathetic to the cause than the city – enacted laws that declared any non-fugitive brought to the state by their owner automatically set free, and evolving personal liberty laws that guaranteed a role for the courts in rendition, which acted as a certain kind of uneasy shield against an overtly hostile city government unwilling to damage trade ties by turning New York City into an escape hatch for runaways.
The personal liberty laws, not always ironclad, did when enforced offer some unwelcome legal hoops for slavecatchers to jump through – which was essential since it turns out that Solomon Northrup of Twelve Years a Slave fame was not an isolated victim as free blacks, especially children, were frequently kidnapped and then sold into slavery in the south with little or no questions asked on the receiving end. For the most part, though, these laws were typically employed by abolitionists and their allies as legal obfuscations – like a contemporary defense attorney might game the system to aid a guilty client – to delay rendition or effect release of runaways on a technicality to gain time to spirit the defendant away to another state more friendly to fugitives or, in many cases, to Canada, where they would be both free and safe. Not surprisingly, the south howled in unison in protest of such legal shenanigans. But slave state ire rose to new levels of outrage especially at the provision that slaves “in transit” – not uncommon in the hub of a great port city like New York – were if not escapees immediately to be liberated once their feet touched free soil. (Free blacks were certain to promptly share this with their newly-arrived enslaved brethren if they were heretofore unaware of the law.) This made for some sticky situations, most notably (this time in Pennsylvania) when North Carolina politician John Hill Wheeler – newly appointed ambassador to Nicaragua and fresh from dinner with President Franklin Pierce – was on a stopover in Philadelphia on his way to New York with his slave Jane Johnson and her young children when they were “liberated” by a team of white and black abolitionists, with the support of five black dockworkers. This created quite an uproar, of course, but the law upheld it since by statute Johnson and her progeny ceased to be slaves the moment they stepped on Philadelphia’s free soil. It is telling that Wheeler remained convinced that they were instead abducted, incredulous that Jane would want to free herself because presumably she was so well cared for while his property. This of course was a recurring theme in the antebellum south, where the suspicion was often voiced that well-treated slaves would not seek freedom if not for the influence of evil abolitionists – somehow oblivious to the oxymoronic pairing of the terms “slave” and “well-treated.”
Of course, as Foner relates with some detail, many slaves destined to run away were not treated well by any definition. Indeed, a good number fled simply for an opportunity to be free rather than enslaved, but tales of brutality abound, including beatings and deprivation of food and basic needs. There is an account of one stripped naked and flogged severely. Another who witnessed his own brother shot dead by their owner for resisting a beating. Many women became fugitives to spirit their children to safety when word leaked out that an impending sale of their offspring was on the horizon. In one poignant story, we learn of Eliza Manokey, a forty-two year old slave from Delaware who was often deprived of food and clothing and routinely flogged, who witnessed her four year old son being presented as a gift to the owner’s nephew for transit to Missouri: “… the boy clung frantically to his mother … but in vain.” Apologists for the south who rally to the myth of the “Lost Cause” notwithstanding, cruelty seems to have been institutionalized in the slave states, even if every owner was not a monster. This is most apparent in the punishments for recaptured runaways, as in the case of a successful rendition that returned a fugitive to his master, who subsequently had him tied and whipped in a public forum before selling him. It is difficult not to hold the witnesses to this brutal treatment unashamedly meted out in public – and by extension the entire slave south – complicit in such unspeakable acts that clearly put the lie to such unbelievable claims as that by the Richmond Whig that slaves in the south “. . . are the happiest and best cared for laboring population in the world.” If slaves were not, like Uncle Tom — the eponymous protagonist of the Stowe novel – routinely beaten to death, there seemed to be little shelter from arbitrary treatment in a system that at its core and on its best behavior was inhumane.
All of this – in Gateway to Freedom as well as the many other books I have read on slavery in the antebellum south – cannot help but lead the reader to vehement objection when contemporary apologists try to give the south a pass for their euphemistic “peculiar institution,’ with the polite fiction that we cannot judge them from the vantage point of today. Okay, let us then judge them by their times: with the exception of Brazil, slavery had essentially been abolished throughout the globe – the United States was the notable holdout. The founding elite planters four score years before had agonized over its moral blemish, and even if Jefferson and his generation did not have the will or the courage to let go “the wolf by the ears,” as he so aptly put it, they hardly celebrated it as a virtue. So if you lived in the 1840s or 1850s it is difficult to believe that you could have been unaware that the practice of institutionalized human bondage was universally condemned or that it was branded a great evil – unless you were delusional. Clearly, many in the south were indeed delusional victims of their own propaganda that over the years provided handy justification for going forward with something so repugnant. But delusional is no defense against culpability. As Lincoln said, “If slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong.”
White abolitionists and particularly their free black associates took tremendous risks, especially in making forays to the south to effect escapes of slaves rather than only assisting them once they had already made their way to free soil. Gateway to Freedom reveals acts of tremendous courage by these intrepid engineers of the Underground Railroad. On the other hand, Foner like any fine historian brings nuance and complexity to the narrative, uncovering the bickering, disputes and even fracturing of the abolition movement which at last led to a schism between those loyal to the often volatile famous Boston pacifist William Lloyd Garrison and those in New York’s abolitionist camp with wealthy elite businessman Lewis Tappan, who took a somewhat more vigorous approach to assisting fugitive slaves. In retrospect, some of their squabbles seem so banal as to be reminiscent of the ludicrous hostility of the “People’s Front of Judea” for the “Judean People’s Front” in the Monty Python comic masterpiece, Life of Brian, but these men were driven by ideological and moral imperatives, so even if hardly sensible under the circumstances, we must forgive their quarrels if only because their mutual intentions were indeed admirable.
Gateway to Freedom is so pregnant with detail as to run dry in parts, although the account is often rescued by stirring tales of the enslaved struggling to be free and their saviors, white and black. Yet, the sheer number of escapees cited only further swells an already large cast of characters dominated by abolitionists on and off stage. An appendix with an alphabetical list would be helpful to the reader. Also, more of a quibble than a complaint, I suppose, the narrative is not nearly as compelling as it might have been if it was not written both for an academic and a popular audience, so the flow of the storyline is frequently and unevenly interrupted by commentary in quotation marks which adds pauses the reader might wish were not present. Still, Foner has done a masterful job with his subject: anyone interested not only in the Underground Railroad but also in slavery and abolition in the antebellum era should be encouraged to read this fine work.