In Gateway to Freedom, Eric Foner has provided us with an ample retelling of the underground railroad as it existed in its east coast incarnation. It situates our thinking about fugitive slaves within a postrevisionist framework that describes the willingness of northern whites and free black abolitionists to help runaways while still giving the proper nod to slaves themselves—who made those decisions on their own, took far more risk, and drove the entire business of what would become known popularly as the “underground railroad.”
In Foner’s railroad, there were plenty of random white and black northerners willing to help runaway slaves when given the opportunity. There were also more organized vigilance committees like the one in New York, which helped coordinate a variety of antislavery activities, from ensuring that runaways found a bed, found protection, and found their way upstate, ultimately en route to Canada, to more public and prosaic efforts to gain political and educational rights for free black northerners and to file lawsuits on their behalf. They raised money, published runaway accounts, and fought the persistent problem of kidnapping in the name of returning fugitive slaves. Such is the most important work that Foner does in Gateway to Freedom: he broadens the scope of what we think of when we think of the underground railroad, including many elements of activism [End Page 79] that were not underground at all. In this telling, all abolitionism that was willing, even simply in theory, to break an unjust law in aid of freeing a slave, was inherently part of the underground railroad.
It is an interesting line to draw. What makes Foner’s work so necessary is that there really are meaningful disputes over the nature of the underground railroad (and even its very existence). One is reminded of the old joke that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Similarly, the underground railroad was not underground, and, although runaway slaves often did use trains to get north, their path was not exclusive to railroads and did not have anything approximating the corporate infrastructure of a railroad. In casting his net so wide, however, including abolitionist pamphlets and newspaper advertisements placed by city vigilance committees, lawsuits filed on behalf of runaways, and sustained arguments against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as part of the endeavor, the new blurred line becomes the one that separates the underground railroad and general abolitionism. Perhaps, however, that is Foner’s point. The Holy Roman Empire might not have been so holy, but we have a good working conception of what it was. Foner expands our definition of just what constituted the underground railroad in New York, but that in itself is a demonstration that our definitions have not been working.
Of course, New York is the most persistent character in the story. Gateway to Freedom is imbued with a sense of place—of the Upper South as the eye of the slave storm, with runaways forcing the issue by weakening local economies and forcing northerners into moral choices against the law; of the stops along the way for fugitive slaves, from lonely outposts to larger northern cities, all of which eventually developed versions of New York’s vigilance committee; but mostly of New York. There were similar networks of concerned citizens doing similar work in points west, but Foner’s is a story of the most heavily trod route. He describes the history of slavery and antislavery in New York, the development of legitimate abolitionism, and the creation and work of the New York Vigilance Committee. Perhaps most [End Page 80] fascinating is the book’s seventh chapter, which uses a rare record of fugitives kept by abolitionist editor Sydney Howard Gay to reconstruct the stories of those slaves, reminding readers that the broader esoteric discussions about definitions and organizational chains pale in comparison to the lived reality of being a slave who forced those chains into being through the courage of their own discontent.
Those who are...