- Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery by R. J. M. Blackett
In the preface to Making Freedom, R. J. M. Blackett states, “My marching orders … were simple enough: reevaluate the Underground Railroad” (xi). Indeed Blackett’s “simple” task was anything but simple. The Underground Railroad has been a storied part of American history for over a century and has thus been the subject of numerous historical examinations. As Blackett notes, early histories of the Underground Railroad were a “glorification of the work of northern abolitionists” (2). In response, historian Larry Gara questioned these histories, arguing instead that “the initiative to escape came almost exclusively from the enslaved themselves” (2). More recent histories can be divided into two categories: first, historians such as Stanley Harrold have placed the Underground Railroad within the context of the broader antislavery movement; second, several historians have done local studies of the Underground Railroad, examining action at the community level. While Blackett makes use of this recent scholarship, his study is unique because he draws together the social and political history of the Underground Railroad.
Basing his book on a series of lectures he delivered, Blackett presents his reinterpretation in three parts. In the opening chapter, turning previous interpretations of the Underground Railroad on their head, Blackett argues that enslaved blacks initiated the work of self-emancipation and that the Underground Railroad was the consequence of that impulse. Basically, without enslaved African Americans’ efforts to free themselves, the Underground Railroad could not have existed. This interpretation, while apparently simple, is also quite spacious. First, as Blackett points out, [End Page 451] “The politics of self-emancipation took different forms and were driven by different considerations—some opportunistic, others calculated” (18). Thus some enslaved blacks escaped because slave owners broke hiring or other agreements, while others left because of the gravitational pull of free territory. Second, enslaved blacks could find a variety of ways of achieving self-emancipation, from walking off of a steamboat, to transforming passes into tickets to freedom, to the very complicated work of shipping oneself to a northern port. There is room for all in Blackett’s interpretation because he smartly points out that self-emancipation was dependent on personal circumstances.
Drawing on this insight, Blackett uses Pennsylvania as a test case to examine the varied responses to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. On the one hand, Richard McAllister, the Supreme Court–appointed commissioner in charge of all cases involving fugitive slaves in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, vigorously enforced the law, offering fugitive slaves virtually no recourse. Blackett notes that McAllister was proud of how many alleged fugitive slaves he returned to southerners. On the other hand, Blackett suggests that McAllister’s vigorous enforcement of the law, rather than the law itself, generated a resistance movement among free blacks and some antislavery whites. After just two years as commissioner, McAllister was “politically unpalatable” (49). He resigned as commissioner and his political career fizzled. However, while they distanced themselves from McAllister, members of the resistance movement convinced many Pennsylvanians to make further efforts to placate southern demands. It seems, then, that the very variety of responses to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law drove simultaneous impulses for conflict and accommodation.
In the third chapter, Blackett identifies the many “subversives” who went south “to entice slaves to escape” (6). While it is easy for historians to dismiss the complaints of southerners that “subversives” in their midst were stealing away enslaved blacks, Blackett suggests that we should take these complaints seriously. Just because southerners were incorrect to assume that the enslaved would have no reason to leave if it were not for the interference of outsiders, that does not mean that outsiders were not present. In some cases fugitives came back to save the rest of their family; sometimes fugitives remained in free black communities along the border to aid in the escape of others; some free African Americans came south to aid escapees; and some white northerners made the journey south...