South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War

Alice L. Baumgartner. Basic Books, 2020. 342 pages. $32.00.

South to Freedom cover image

Winner of the 2021 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

By John McWilliams

Baumgartner’s jargon-free, theory-free, fact-filled history fully deserves the honor of the Emerson award. Its arresting title restores an important, long-ignored fact about chattel slavery. Americans have long been familiar with images of fugitive slaves journeying north to freedom: Canada, the Underground Railroad, the North Star, Eliza crossing the ice on the Ohio River, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Toni Morison’s Beloved and much more.  Escaping south to freedom, however, counters our received expectations. By providing details about named slaves and by scouring remaining records, Baumgartner estimates that, between 1835 and 1861, three to five thousand slaves escaped south to Mexico. Others were captured while en route through the Republic of Texas, and later through the State of Texas, where the legality of slavery was a provision in both of their Constitutions. Other than Mexico’s obvious proximity to the states of the Deep South, the question is why south to freedom? 

The answer illustrates another strength of Baumgartner’s book, her knowledge of Mexican political history, especially the history of Mexican slavery. How many Americans, familiar with slavery from a nationalist perspective, are now aware that Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, then again in 1837, and then again in 1846, long before the United States was to abolish slavery? In 1824, just as empresario Stephen Austin was trying to secure slave-holding lands within the Mexican province of Coahuilla y Tejas, Mexico outlawed the importation of new slaves from abroad. In 1827 Mexico passed a “free womb” law, then in 1831 refused to return slaves who had fled into Mexico from the outlier province of Tejas. Most important, the Mexican Constitution of 1846 decreed that slaves were free once they “set foot on the national territory” (italics mine). At that time, the word “territory” referred to the scarcely settled lands that were to become California, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona—to the entire 1846 Mexican Cession of some 340 million acres. Throughout these decades, Baumgartner acknowledges, legal abolition was only partially effective within Mexico’s borders. However, it provided a livable destination for runaways, who often worked as laborers or joined the Mexican army. Mexico’s abolition of slavery remained a hopeful beacon of value, a geo-political principle that implicitly shamed many an antislavery Americans, whether of the immediatist or gradualist persuasion. Baumgartner argues convincingly that “Antislavery was a powerful weapon in the hands of a weak government.” No matter how many times turbulent Mexico may have undergone regime change,  policies supporting abolition remained in law. Baumgartner reminds us that “even hypocritical, self-interested, or unenforced policies could have profound significance.”

The chief example of this significance, for the expanding future of the United States, was the lasting effect of the Wilmot Proviso (1846), which sought to outlaw slavery in future U.S. territories, meaning, in context, the Mexican territories. When Senator Henry Clay introduced the Compromise of 1850 to the Senate, he declared, thinking of the Mexican Cession, “I cannot vote to convert a territory already free into a slave territory.” Clay’s Whig Party became the Free Soil Party, then the Republican Party. Early in 1861, newly elected President Lincoln, who had supported the Wilmot Proviso as a Congressman, declared himself still “inflexible” in opposing slavery in the territories, thereby opposing the Crittenden Proposals, which if passed might have postponed Southern secession. By attending to Mexican politics, Baumgartner has added a neglected cause to our understanding of the antislavery movement. She realigns the priorities of influential historians like Frederick Merk by arguing that slavery (not abstractions like “Manifest Destiny,” “All Mexico,” or pioneer “Expansionism”) was the essential cause of the Annexation of Texas, of the Mexican War, and, ultimately, of secession and disunion. In their stead, she shows us Mexico’s contribution to the eventual passage of the 13th Amendment. 

Books like South to Freedom should also put to rest a longstanding cliché. For decades, American history texts, wishing to demonstrate impartiality among regions, have generalized that it was only a questionable opinion of Northerners that the settlement of Texas, the Annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, and the Mexican Cession were driven by expansion of slavery into new territories. The slaveholding Southern states, historians further generalized, held a different opinion, equally questionable, for which its adherents cited seemingly plausible Constitutional arguments. The range of opinion was, of course, far more complicated than this ex post facto separation of Northerners vs. Southerners.  But slavery, both as an issue and as a reality, was always there. Stubborn facts argue that slavery was the persistent cause of sectional strife. Both John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun got it right, though from opposite perspectives. The settlement and annexation of new territory to the southwest needed King Cotton, and King Cotton needed slavery to grow its product.

Consider, for examples, the slaveholding assets and practices of the most influential actors during the expansionist crises that Baumgartner considers. (My figures are drawn from written records, but can be no more precise than most statistics). Among the Presidents: Andrew Jackson owned 40 slaves, John Tyler 37, James K. Polk 36, Zachary Taylor more than 100: among Secretaries of State John C. Calhoun owned 75 slaves and Abel Upshur 2; among Texas and Alamo heroes Stephen Austin owned 4 slaves, Sam Houston 12, William Travis 5 and Mirabeau Lamar 3. In 1823 Stephen Austin successfully bargained with Mexico that 60 acres per slave be allotted to each of the original “300” settlers in Tejas. Jim Bowie smuggled slaves into Galveston, then bought them for himself. Then, markedly, in the mid 1840s, the worm turns. Nicholas Trist, who negotiated the Mexican Cession, was a strong supporter of slavery (left unmentioned in the Guadeloupe Hidalgo Treaty). When Stephen Kearny claimed the New Mexico territory for the United States in Santa Fe in 1846, he hoped and expected it would be a slave state (wrong). California and New Mexico, like Oregon, entered the Union as free states. James Gadsden, who furthered the Gadsden Purchase (1853), planned a railroad that would bring Southern men and institutions from Charleston to New Orleans to Houston to El Paso to San Diego and thence perhaps north to Monterey (never completed). What more would ye have? For resolving the legal issue of chattel slavery, the United States is indebted to Mexico, the abolitionist-leaning Republic to which Norte Americanos would long continue to condescend.

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