IntroductionThe Underground Railroad has become mythic in American culture. This was the vague means by which anti-slavery supporters assisted slaves desperate to be free, taking many forms. The reality of this complex system, understandably never defined in its time, has been largely unexplored. In Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of America’s Fugitive Slaves, Eric Foner carefully documents how this assistance existed and, in the process, reveals the wider impact of slavery as an ideology and institution by no means restricted to the South.
Foner begins by documenting multiple early realities of slave escape. Many slaves planned for long months; others made immediate flights to escape unbearable conditions. As this occurred, channels opened up providing relief, as in David Ruggles who, in New York, looked out for runaway slaves needing help. Ruggles’ own efforts arose from the initial fight to prevent blacks being kidnapped in the city and sold in the South (Foner 3). Then, all circumstances were complicated and risky. Fleeing slaves lived in terror of capture, and the terror was founded on some fact. For example, the generally accepted idea that reaching New York City translated to real freedom for escaping slaves is far from the reality. Safety was by no means assured for these people, and largely because the city was politically and ideologically linked to the South.
Democratic officials gladly helped in the capture of escaped slaves, and pro-slavery groups openly attacked Abolitionists’ homes and meeting places (9). From here, Foner goes on to record the lengthy history of slavery and indentured servanthood in New York, long in place since the Revolution; the immense role of Ruggles as a champion of slaves and a founder of the Railroad (67); and the history and efforts of Sydney Gay, equal to Ruggles in working to protect escaped slaves and end the institution. In this section, the reality of division in ideologies, even among Northern Abolitionists, is clear, which in turn reinforces how ideas of slavery were conflicted throughout the nation in the era. In the 1840s, for example, a Boston Abolitionist delegation broke up because of internal disputes (98), and politics, economics, and ideologies created a “patchwork” Underground Railroad, rather than any organized slave relief.
Foner then supports the legend of Harriet Tubman as, largely, accurate. This remarkably brave black woman fought relentlessly for slave freedom, and the author notes that her success as essentially fronting and organizing the Railroad is documented by factual record and the preserved accounts of slaves themselves (193-194). The book concludes by noting how the impending war actually worsened slave opportunities, as tensions were increasing. However, and
not unexpectedly, the war itself greatly changed slave resources. Slaves no longer relied on secret arrangements with anyone connected to the Railroad; instead, the new presence of federal troops translated to a refuge. Many found ways to travel to Washington, D.C., as soon as war was declared, because this was the anti-slavery capital of the nation (222). Beyond anything else, moreover, Foner provides a vast range of documentation to support virtually every account. From beginning to end, ultimately, the book reveals the realities of the escaping slave and the Underground Railroad as facets of how impactful slavery was within the nation, and for long decades before the Civil War and emancipation.
With Foner, an American legend largely existing only as legend comes to life. The Underground Railroad was no identifiable system, but rather the many ways in which whites and blacks worked to provide freedom for slaves, and as adapting to the political and social forces changing as the nation moved to war essentially because of slavery. In Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of America’s Fugitive Slaves, Foner relates how this assistance existed through research and fact, and in the process emphasizes the wider impact of slavery as an ideology and institution by no means restricted to the South.
- Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of America’s Fugitive Slaves. Oxford
University Press, 2015.