Thursday, March 05, 2015

What we're reading: Hidden History

Gateway to Freedom:
by Eric Foner

Eric Foner has had a distinguished and much-honored career as an American historian. His work has centered primarily on the Civil War era. A few years ago, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery was the winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Pulitzer Prize in American History, and the Lincoln Prize. For those of us of a certain age, his first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, was (and remains) a standard supplementary text in college survey courses on this period of American history. Like that book, the hallmark of Foner’s work has been his interest in tracing how particular strands of intellectual, political, and social history intertwine, and how that synthesis comes to define important historical moments. Foner’s explorations leave us with a richer, more nuanced history of ideas and motives than the simplified picture of events (sometimes transfigured into myth) we studied as school children in our first encounters with American history.

Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave
who escaped from Maryland became a
major anti-slavery advocate and was
involved in the Underground Railroad
in upstate New York.  Like Douglass,
almost all fugitive slaves escaped from
the Border States, those states most
proximate to the free north.  Escapes from
the deep South were very rare.

Gateway to Freedom is a book perhaps narrower in scope than some of Foner’s previous work. It is centered on the history of the Underground Railroad in New York City, and the unpublished “Record of Fugitives,” left by Sydney Howard Gay, that he wrote during his period as editor of the abolitionist National Anti-Slavery Standard. In the 1850s, Gay served on the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society and was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. He was also an important agent of the Underground Railroad and, with several key free black operatives, ran an operation in New York that made New York an important nexus to funnel fugitives from southeastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia to New England and to upstate New York (from which they frequently made their way to Canada).

A poster of the Boston Vigilance Committee.

“Vigilance Committees” were formed in some
Northern cities by free blacks and abolitionists.
Their ostensible purpose was to prevent free blacks
from being kidnapped and sold into slavery,
but they were also very implicated in protecting
and helping fugitives by frustrating efforts
their owners made to capture and return them
to slavery, a goal they pursued by both
legal and illegal means.

Foner argues, “The 'underground railroad' should be understood not as a single entity but as an umbrella term for local groups that employed numerous methods to assist fugitives, some public and entirely legal, some flagrant violations of the law.” Some readers may be disappointed that Foner’s focus is on but one of those local groups (the one in New York) and not a more general or comprehensive study. This, however, is the problem with the myth we have grown up with concerning the Underground Railroad--the notion that it was a single highly organized entity and that it effected, in dramatic fashion, the manumission of a substantial number of slaves (an idea created largely by historians at the end of the 19th Century). If the decentralized and varied nature of activities and organizations that helped fugitives was in fact the true nature of things, then our understanding can only come from examining, as Foner does here, some of its more notable components: examining how they were, or were not, like other operations, and what role they played in cooperation and support of kindred organizations bent on helping fugitives. That is what Foner has done.

Harriett Tubman was a fugitive slave
and one of the most celebrated operatives
of the Underground Railroad. Her exploits
were exceptional and dramatic. She returned
numerous times to slave states to facilitate
the escape of others in bondage, a risk that
few other fugitives would dare take.
He is careful to point out that what happened in New York was not necessarily typical or representative of all Underground Railroad activity, but he uses the centrality of the New York operation to explore connections within the network, as well as to highlight the kinds of political issues that were local (New York City, for instance, with significant pro-Southern business interests, was not a particularly hospitable place for fugitives and most did not stay there) and those issues that also had wider national implications and affinities. Foner's usual interest in making connections between ideas, social movements, and poltics is here as well, as he places the Underground Railroad and the issue of fugitive slaves in the context of the larger antebellum debate over slavery and the internecine battle of ideas within the abolitionist movement itself. 

Gateway to Freedom reminds us that every book of history written is also a book about the practice of history itself, an author’s statement not only about the subject at hand but about the method and purpose of seeking historical truth and meaning. On both counts, Foner, as ever, has something interesting and important to say.

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