Interview with Alice Baumgartner

Alice Baumgartner photo

By Marina Catullo

South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War by Alice Baumgartner (Basic Books) is the 2021 recipient of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Phi Beta Kappa’s Emerson Award, established in 1960, is offered for scholarly work that contributes significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity. The award encompasses the fields of history, philosophy, and religion, and includes relevant work in related fields such as anthropology and the social sciences.

Baumgartner is an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern California. She earned a Ph.D. in history from Yale University as well as a Master of Philosophy in Latin American studies from the University of Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

In South to Freedom, Baumgartner explores the largely untold history of thousands of slaves located in the south-central United States who fled to the Republic of Mexico, rather than north through the Underground Railroad, in the four decades leading up to the Civil War. Baumgartner shows how Mexico’s abolition of slavery in 1837 and radical antislavery policies challenged United States institutions of slavery and helped to set the stage for the Civil War. The publisher describes Baumgartner’s work as “a revelatory and essential new perspective on antebellum America and the causes of the Civil War.”

In addition to the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, South to Freedom has been named a New York Times Editors’ Choice. It was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.


What led you to explore the history of Mexico’s shift towards an antislavery republic and the effect that had on American politics and slavery institutions?

BAUMGARTNER: I never expected to write a book about enslaved people who escaped to Mexico, much less the Mexican laws that drew them there and the consequences that their flight had for slavery in the United States. When I took my first research trip to Mexico in 2012, at the height of a war between the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel over who would control the drug corridors to the United States, I thought I was going to write about violence on the U.S.-Mexico border during the mid-19th century. But as I combed through the archives, I was surprised to come across document after document about slaveholders from the United States attempting to kidnap freedom seekers in Mexico—and facing violent resistance from freedom seekers and Mexican citizens alike. At the time, I had no idea that enslaved people were escaping to Mexico, and I started to wonder why. It took another 18 months of archival research to realize that runaways did not flee to Mexico out of ignorance or desperation. They escaped because they did manage to find a measure of freedom and belonging in Mexico

In your study, you say that by abolishing slavery and assisting runaway slaves, Mexico claimed a “moral power.” How did Mexico use this “moral power” to its advantage?

BAUMGARTNER: Mexico abolished slavery in 1837, less than a year after the end of the Texas Revolution. The timing was no coincidence. Defending liberty helped Mexicans to find victory in defeat. Texas forces might have routed the Mexican army at the Battle of San Jacinto, but, in the words of one politician, only Mexico could stand “upright” before the world. Abolishing slavery also galvanized public support for Mexico around the world. From Edinburgh, Scotland to Westchester County, New York, antislavery societies condemned Texas for having taken up arms in defense of slavery. Abolition also served a larger geopolitical purpose. By revolt or escape, enslaved people had the power to undermine the independence of the fledgling Republic of Texas.

Mexico’s abolition policy did not prevent the United States from annexing Texas in 1845 and provoking a war that conquered half of Mexico’s territory in a year, but it did have significant consequences for slavery in North America. The conquest of what is now the American Southwest marked the first time in U.S. history that the United States had acquired territory where slavery was abolished by law. Northern politicians refused to reestablish slavery where it had been prohibited, throwing the political balance between North and South into jeopardy. Mexico’s promise of freedom also posed a more immediate threat to the future of slavery. After all, Mexico bordered the U.S. South, and specifically the Deep South, where slave-based agriculture was booming. Enslaved people escaped to the south in such numbers that slaveholders hesitated to move anywhere near Mexico.

In a review of your book, David W. Blight, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, writes: “South to Freedom reorders the way we should think and teach about the slavery expansion crisis in the middle of the 19th century. Indeed, it reorders how to think about the huge question of the coming of the American Civil War. Not many books these days can make that claim. With astonishing research and graceful writing, this one can.” How do you think the findings in your study might change the way history is taught?

BAUMGARTNER: Historians have long identified the U.S. War with Mexico as a key turning point in the coming of the Civil War. The acquisition of Mexican territory, according to most accounts, raised controversial questions about the status of slavery in what would become the American Southwest. But the United States had expanded from the eastern seaboard to the Pacific with only one other major sectional controversy—over the admission of Missouri as a slave state. What, then, was so controversial about Mexican territory? If you go back and read the debates over the admission of the former Mexican territories, you see that what was different was that Mexico had abolished slavery, and Northern politicians refused to reestablish it, some because they believed human bondage was immoral, others because the Constitution did not empower Congress to make such a policy. Proslavery politicians had only to look at a map to see the danger posed by Mexican abolition. If the Southwest were closed to slavery, then the southern states would be surrounded on all sides by free states—and their representatives would be outnumbered in the Senate. Proslavery politicians’ attempts to avoid such an outcome ignited a sectional controversy that would lead to the overturning of the Missouri Compromise, the outbreak of violence in Kansas, and the birth of a new political coalition, the Republican Party, whose success in the election of 1860 led to the U.S. Civil War.

What did the research process look like for South to Freedom? With a topic this expansive, where did you start?

BAUMGARTNER: Since I came upon this topic by accident, I started out with a number of key documents. From there, I followed up on places, names, and events, going anywhere that might have relevant documents. That process eventually took me to 28 archives in three different countries—an archive rat’s dream!

What was your reaction when you found out you won the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, and what does it mean to you to have done so?

BAUMGARTNER: When I found out that my book was a finalist for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, I was thrilled that it made it that far, and I also put the chances that the book would make the final cut at approximately zero, since the list of previous winners is a who’s who of the best historians and writers around. I was floored and humbled to learn that the book had won, and it meant—and means—so much, after years of research and writing, to receive this recognition.

Watch a recording of the 2021 Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards to learn more about this year’s Emerson Award winner and the Society’s other book prizes.

Marina Catullo is a graduate of the University of South Carolina where she studied political science and English. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa there in April 2021. The University of South Carolina is home to the Alpha of South Carolina chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.