Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

Eric Foner. W.W. Norton & Company, 2015. 275 pages. $26.95.

Shortlisted for the 2016 ΦBK Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

By John McWilliams

Eric Foner (ΦBK, Columbia University, 1963) has long been among the most admired and influential historians of nineteenth century America, particularly of slavery and the Civil War as they affected Reconstruction and its divisive legacy. In Who Owns History? (2002), Foner challenged relativistic skepticism by asserting that “historical truth does exist, not in the scientific sense but as a reasonable approximation of the past.” His modest phrase “a reasonable approximation” in fact subsumes many merits of lasting historical writing: confronting the often contradictory totality of social experience, assessing new discoveries, acknowledging missing evidence, and avoiding theoretical jargon, all the while pursuing the goal of “clear, expository writing” that can appeal to the general educated reader as well as the professional academic. 

As a “hidden history of the underground railroad,” Gateway to Freedom exemplifies all these merits. What is “hidden” is not so much the necessarily clandestine operations of the underground railroad itself, but our current oversimplifications and (mis)understandings of its complexities and contradictions. Foner reminds us that the United States Constitution implicitly recognized chattel slavery while avoiding the word. The ‘freedom principle’ (insisting that a slave entering a free state became free) conflicted with the principle of “extra-territoriality” (a slave remains a slave when outside of the jurisdiction that defines him). Extra-territoriality, in turn, is based upon the English Common Law right of “recaption” of one’s personal property. As a result, the many Personal Liberty laws passed by Northern states between 1833 and 1850 could logically be applied to free blacks and to transported slaves, but not necessarily to fugitive slaves who had committed an act criminal according the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, later reinforced by the 1842 decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.    

Although Foner admires the moral and physical courage of those who rescued and gave testimony for fugitive slaves, he is keenly aware of the oversimplifications that have accrued from 150 years of folklore and written testimony about the underground railroad itself. Blacks and whites worked together in an admirable cause, but not as equals. An abolitionist who wrote an editorial, gave a keynote speech, defended the accused in court, and contributed significant sums for the cause was likely to be white; the ‘conductor’ who passed along messages between ‘stations,’ who guided fugitives along country paths or walked city streets near a ‘depot’ was likely to be black. The abolitionists who directed Vigilance Committees were themselves divided between Garrisonian immediatists willing to condone some measure of violence and gradualists who valued law obedience. The ‘gateway to freedom’ very often proved to be a ship, a carriage, an over-ground railroad or all three of them together. If there is a representative fugitive slave, he would be a skilled, early middle-aged male who had already hired himself out, had some money, and who was fleeing from a border state of the upper South unaccompanied by wife or children. He was not a field hand from a Deep South plantation. Although Foner is rightly wary of statistics, he estimates that by 1860, perhaps 30,000 of some four million slaves had escaped to freedom—that would be only .73% of the slave population. 

Foner’s Introduction singles out a restricted aspect of its general subject: “This book is a study of fugitive slaves and the underground railroad in New York City.” Focusing on New York proves to be both highly informative and deeply troubling.  William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, central to most accounts of abolitionism and the Underground Railroad, are experienced by Foner’s reader from within the context of New York City as distant voices and absent presences. Instead, underlying social conditions prevail: we see the largest city, largest port and commercial center of the nation divided and immobilized by slavery, very much to the advantage of Southern interests. Chattel slavery does not legally end in New York until 1827. Seven years later, an anti-black riot convulses the city. The Vigilance Committee is opposed and often thwarted by the Union Safety Committee.  New York Mayor Fernando Wood is an outspoken pro-slavery Southern sympathizer. The financial interests of New York cotton merchants, textile manufacturers and their bankers (New York’s variant of the Lords of the Loom) exert hidden influence upon such unsavory prosecutorial figures as Richard Riker, Recorder of the Court of Special Sessions, and Tobias Boudinot, city constable, who together with their “accomplices” round up and expedite the return of fugitive slaves with needed haste but frequent ease.  Monetary contributions for anti-slavery activities needed from New York’s wealthy, evangelical Tappan brothers tempers the demands of leaders drawn toward Garrisonian outrage. Samuel Cornish, black editor of the Colored American, writes an editorial sternly admonishing blacks who urge violence in freeing captured slaves. During the 1850s, not one fugitive slave is rescued from the hands of New York authorities or the federally appointed Commissioner of the 1850 fugitive slave law. Instead, approximately 300 fugitive slaves are returned to slavery. In the 1860 presidential election, Republican Abraham Lincoln carries New York State but loses New York City by more than a 20% margin of the electorate.

To be sure, Foner pays restorative tribute to courageous leaders of New York City’s underground railroad: David Ruggles, Louis Napoleon (sic!) and especially Sydney Howard Gay, whose Record of Fugitives is an important source discovery. And yet, Gateway to Freedom leaves this reader with troubling implications about the continuing struggle for freedom. Yes, we should celebrate the Frederick Douglasses and Harriet Tubmans of antebellum America, but what does it mean for today’s world that the nation’s largest and most economically powerful city long remained so demonstrably retrograde in its support of emancipation? Can today’s confusion and/or condemnation of America’s “illegal aliens” be to any plausible degree connected to the perceived status of the fugitive slave? Does not economic self-interest contribute to our present reluctance to develop policies on immigration?  David Blight’s 2004 article “Why the Underground Railroad and Why Now?” observes that to see slavery through the underground railroad is “to view it through the most positive and progressive lens possible.” Foner’s Gateway to Freedom chooses the same lens but avoids one-dimensional celebration of the heroism of racial togetherness. Individual case after individual case unfolds in Foner’s study of fugitive slaves, but none of these accounts are simple feel-good narratives that allow the reader the luxury of historical self-congratulation. The true railroad to freedom may still be underground.  

John P. McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University, 1962) is an emeritus professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.