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  • The Captive's Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery by R. J. M. Blackett
  • Manisha Sinha (bio)
The Captive's Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery. By R. J. M. Blackett. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. 511. Cloth, $120.00; paper, $32.99.)

Richard J. M. Blackett, an eminent historian of black abolition and the Civil War, attempts to provide a comprehensive history of the fugitive slave controversy in this book. Based primarily on research in local newspapers from the period, a method pioneered by Stanley Harrold in his award-winning Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (2010), this book takes a deep dive into the numerous instances of enslaved people voting with their feet against slavery in the decade before the war. Combining that research with a reading of most (though not all) of the historiography on the subject, Blackett, like several historians in the recent past, seeks to understand the history of the Underground Railroad, long dismissed by academic historians as the stuff of self-serving myth and memory. It is only after the publication of Fergus Bordewich's landmark Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (2005) and countless local histories by independent scholars and historians that the history of the Underground Railroad has come into its own. Today, some of the best historians of this period—both young and established—are writing new and exciting histories of fugitive slaves and their allies.

Blackett begins his book with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Even though he notes that the law itself was a result of the many instances of defiance of the first federal fugitive slave law (the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793)—by enslaved people, free black communities, their antislavery allies, as well as some northern states—he does not include that history. The first three chapters that make up part 1 of the book take a detailed look at the law and its effects and the well-known resistance to it in the North among black and white abolitionists. Blackett also examines the politics of compromise (the new law was a part of the Compromise of 1850) and the resurgence of colonization sentiment after the law's passage. He looks at some of the schemes for the colonization of African Americans, such as the plans of the Reverend James Mitchell of the Indiana Colonization Society, as fallout from the law. But he pays scant attention to independent emigration efforts among a few black abolitionists at this time, which ran parallel to and at times intersected with the colonization movement in the 1850s.

The rest of the book, contained in part 2, describes the numerous efforts at escape at particular areas and state borders, where racial slavery bumped [End Page 309] up against free states. Blackett divides his chapters by state borders: Missouri-Illinois, Kentucky-Indiana, Kentucky-Ohio, and Pennsylvania-Maryland. He also looks at the flourishing abolitionist underground in New York and Massachusetts, which helped nullify the Fugitive Slave Law in these states. Though he mentions most of the spectacular confrontations over fugitive slave rendition in the 1850s, Blackett does not devote chapters to Michigan and Wisconsin, which also developed substantial opposition to the law and networks of escape into Canada. It is also somewhat unfortunate that Blackett does not include some of the newer perspectives and work on the Underground Railroad that add to the dominant south-north axis of escape. Enslaved people sought free spaces wherever they could: from Texas they escaped to Mexico; from Florida they escaped to freedom via the sea; and some made their way west to Indian Territory.

Blackett mentions the hundreds and thousands of runaway slaves assisted by particular abolitionists or who escaped through certain areas and routes of escape. He does not, however, attempt to give us an overall approximate figure for the numbers of fugitive slaves that escaped to freedom or who were recaptured in the 1850s. For the latter, historians still rely on the old and flawed numbers suggested by...


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