- David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City
Despite Graham Hodges's claim that his biography of David Ruggles belongs "unabashedly" in the "contributionist" mode of black history, he offers not merely an impressive excavation of a forgotten champion of civil rights but an insightful take on the antebellum movement for black [End Page 85] freedom as a whole (3). Well known in his day, David Ruggles has not benefited from the recent renewal of interest in black abolitionist biography. Not as notorious as David Walker, as foundational as Richard Allen, as intellectual as James McCune Smith, nor as wealthy as James Forten, Ruggles was a man whose significance appears initially to offer a harder case to make. Hodges succeeds admirably in arguing that Ruggles rightly deserves a place in the pantheon of black abolitionist heroes and heroines.
Born in Connecticut in 1810, free but under the shadow of a slavery that was only recently abolished, Ruggles threw himself into antislavery activity in New York City early in his adulthood. His energetic, plebeian youth exposed him to the ideological legacy of the American Revolution and the enthusiasms of evangelical religion, and his experience as a mariner along the Atlantic coast sharpened his radicalism. Settling in New York around 1828, Ruggles opened a small grocery shop and quickly began doubling as a purveyor of abolitionist texts. He soon began writing and publishing his own works, which explored familiar abolitionist themes, such as the rejection of African colonization of freed blacks and the struggle for equal voting and educational rights in the North. Ruggles shared his fervor with a rising generation of black activist leaders, such as William Cooper Nell, Sojourner Truth, and even Frederick Douglass, who first encountered the antislavery movement not through William Lloyd Garrison but through Ruggles.
Most important, Ruggles spearheaded the New York Committee of Vigilance, which served as a model of direct action on behalf of fugitive slaves. The committee offered succor to fugitive slaves, descended on the docks when ships containing slaves landed in New York, and resisted slave owners' efforts to kidnap suspected fugitives and return them to bondage. In 1838 alone, the Vigilance Committee reported 173 ongoing cases, making Ruggles's claim of having helped over a thousand fugitives not implausible.
The crux of Hodges's case for Ruggles's significance lies in his subject's commitment to taking immediate, practical action to free slaves and to achieve civil rights for the freed. Ruggles's dedication to this principle helped him transcend the internecine squabbles that plagued abolitionism—between Garrisonians and Tappanites, and white and black activists, for example. Ruggles approached the struggle with a kind ideological ecumenicalism; all else was secondary to his immediate and direct efforts to ameliorate the cause of the enslaved. Thus he could remain friends with Garrison while parting ways with him over pacifism.
Not that Ruggles was above controversy. Strident, polemical, and at times dogmatic, he created friction with many in the movement. Implicated [End Page 86] in the financial mismanagement of the Vigilance Committee, Ruggles increasingly dedicated his energy to exonerating himself. Eventually, with his health as impaired as his reputation, Ruggles retired to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he struggled to cure his own blindness and built a hydrotherapy practice catering to the North's reform-minded cognoscenti. Ruggles died young, at thirty-nine, inspiring few of the rhetorical monuments erected for other black abolitionists, but having laid claim to being one of the movement's most practically successful workers.
Hodges re-centers our understanding of the Underground Railroad, locating it not primarily among white farmers of the west, nor in a series of ad hoc and disconnected efforts. Rather, he sees it as a function of urban black radicals like Ruggles, who in New York City formulated methods later adopted in other cities. It was the model of the Vigilance Committee, rather than that of Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin, that inspired the great fugitive...