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  • On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820–1870 by David G. Smith
  • Stanley Harrold (bio)
On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820–1870. By David G. Smith. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. Pp. 338. Cloth, $70.00.)

David G. Smith understands history’s complexity and enjoys describing it. These are essential traits for someone analyzing conditions on the northern edge of antebellum America’s North-South border. Although Smith, in investigating “the fugitive slave issue in south central Pennsylvania,” deals with a fragment of a huge region stretching from the Atlantic coast to Kansas, a national perspective informs his approach. That perspective offsets a tendency in local studies toward detailed descriptions of events that are of little interest to audiences beyond a specific geographical area.

For many years, historians relegated the North-South borderlands and fugitive slaves to secondary roles in accounts of the decades preceding the Civil War. Revisionist and consensus historians during the early to mid-twentieth century emphasized the influence of abolitionists in the Upper North and fire-eating secessionists in the Lower South in pushing a reluctant middle ground toward disunion and war. Edward L. Ayers’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863 (2003) reflects this point of view. “The people of the border did not start the fight,” he declares. “They prided themselves on their restraint in the face of what they saw as provocation by extremists above and below them” (xviii–xix). Marc Egnal in Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War (2009) cites diverging economic interests in the “extreme” regions of the country to make a similar case.

During the 1960s, other historians refuted two assumptions concerning white border northerners. First is the exaggerated image Wilbur H. Siebert created in The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898) of benevolent white northerners escorting African Americans away from slavery. Larry Gara’s Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (1961) questions the existence of organized white northern aid to fugitive slaves. Second is the assumption that white northerners were less racist than their southern counterparts. Leon Litwack’s North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790–1860 (1961) and Eugene H. Berwanger’s The [End Page 581] Frontier against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (1967) portray white border northerners broadly as more racist than their southern counterparts.

Recently historians have reconsidered emphasis on extremes and a monolithic view of white attitudes in the Lower North. Journal articles by Paul Finkelman, Richard S. Newman, and John Craig Hammond find that whites in the Lower North were far from uniform in their attitudes toward slavery and race. These historians recognize that large elements of the white population in the Lower North shared biases with their counterparts in the Border South. But Finkelman, Newman, and Hammond also recognize a sectional division in white attitudes and actions concerning African Americans. They describe northward slave escapes and white support in the Lower North for escapees. In analyzing the fugitive slave issue in south-central Pennsylvania, Smith strengthens such interpretations.

Smith indicates that black communities in the area led in helping fugitive slaves. Yet he provides few details. Instead, he concentrates on a division of white opinion and action regarding the fugitive slave issue. He describes how some white residents of south-central Pennsylvania (racially biased as they were) helped escapees, resisted the kidnapping of black northerners into slavery, and in some cases maintained escape networks. Many more white residents supported antislavery political organizations and various degrees of protection for black rights. Usually, though, most white people in south-central Pennsylvania sided with slaveholders. According to Smith, they did so out of antiblack prejudice, economic ties to the Border South, distrust of abolitionists, and a desire to avoid sectional conflict.

The bulk of Smith’s book deals with a political struggle between these two white groups. On one side, a range of antislavery opinion opposed enforcement of the fugitive slave laws. On the other, those inclined to support slavery in the South, and slave...


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