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  • Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery by R. J. M. Blackett
  • Christopher Leadingham
Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery. By R. J. M. Blackett. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 102.)

Underground Railroad (UGRR) stationmasters, stockholders, and conductors assisted in the escape of thousands of runaway slaves through much of the nineteenth century. Early histories of the movement, typically written by the descendants of white abolitionists, largely denied agency to both the free and enslaved African Americans who played integral roles in planning and orchestrating escapes. R. J. M. Blackett echoes the work of recent UGRR historians, such as Keith Griffler, to contest this view and demonstrate black agency. He also examines the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and explains that the legislation shaped the political milieu of the period. The author illustrates how the actions of black and white abolitionists, escaped slaves, and southern lawmakers influenced local, state, and federal policies and shaped the future of both slavery and the national government.

Blackett employs vivid examples from the Ohio Valley to demonstrate that the slaves themselves were motivated to escape based upon innate notions of freedom. Those who chose to self-emancipate did so for a variety of reasons. Some hoped to be reunited with family members and friends. Others chose to leave when masters violated informal hiring agreements. The more opportunistic, such as fifteen-year-old Zechariah Mead, followed the example of others and escaped as members of large groups. The author explains that the promise of freedom and the proximity of free land motivated many to forsake the bonds of servitude. Slaveholders sought to limit both the spread of news and the mobility of slaves by passing legislation that prohibited bondsmen from comingling with working-class whites and free blacks. Slaves often devised and coordinated their own escapes. Some that escaped utilized the federal postal system to communicate with and arrange for the passage of family members and friends. Abolitionists such as William Still of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee played key roles in relaying information to those left behind.

Blackett maintains that the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law thrust the actions of escapees and those who aided them into the public spotlight. The legislation, a component of the Compromise of 1850, made the recapture and rendition of slaves a national matter. Extensive resistance to the law amplified sectional tensions and encompassed the larger debates concerning slavery and the unity of the national government. Free-born African Americans and their white northern allies united to oppose the law and assist fugitive slaves in their pursuit of freedom. Some in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, launched a committee to aid escapees as they passed through the city. The author demonstrates that the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law led to a rash of kidnappings across [End Page 90] southeastern Pennsylvania that heightened tensions between the Pennsylvania and Maryland state governments. Public opinion widely favored the continued enforcement of the law and the legislation proposed in the Pennsylvania legislature sent a clear message that runaways were not welcome in the state.

Escapes highlighted the vulnerability of the slave system. Southern slaveholders were skeptical that slaves acted on their own behalf. Local and regional newspapers hastily drew links between escapees and those free blacks and whites suspected of harboring abolitionist sentiment. Blackett demonstrates that such connections were not so farfetched. Northern abolitionists frequently traveled south under the guise of legitimate business ventures to help fugitive slaves escape from the region. Their actions created much suspicion among slaveholders and heightened the ambiguity of the UGRR. The author explains that some slave masters created defensive organizations to stem the tide of slave escapes. In Kentucky, slaveholders from Boone, Mason, Pendleton, and Bracken Counties gathered in November 1852 to inventory members’ slaves and establish a recapture fund. Others called for a boycott of all northern manufactures and even considered the expulsion of free blacks from the South. However, southerners proved unable to stem the tide of slave escapes despite their best efforts.

R. J. M. Blackett effectively illustrates the powerful social and political transformations wrought by the 1850...