Review of “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad” by Eric Foner

Once again the eminent historian Eric Foner has written a fascinating and important history that helps set the record straight about the period in America before, during, and after the Civil War. While this book focuses on the escape of runaway slaves and especially the support and/or obstacles they encountered in New York City, he places his study within the wider context of American politics at the time.

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New York was an important and active center of underground railroad activity. When William Seward was governor, the state enacted several “personal liberty” measures that, inter alia, decreed that any slave entering the state except a fugitive automatically became free. In addition, New York was the home of the largest free black community at that time, making it attractive for fugitives who would need help if they got as far as that state. It also had a sizable liberal white community of abolitionists.

Gubernatorial portrait of William H. Seward In office from January 1, 1839 to December 31, 1842

Gubernatorial portrait of William H. Seward In office from January 1, 1839 to December 31, 1842

But there were undeniably many New Yorkers who made fortunes from the slave trade, either directly or indirectly through the cotton industry, and who therefore objected to any acts to alienate the southern states. New York’s “Journal of Commerce” (still in print today), called for repeal of the personal liberty laws of New York and for abandonment of the clearly (to them) absurd idea “that to rob our neighbor of his slave … is a Christian duty.” These businessmen even wanted to allow slavery to spread to the West, all to appease the planters who made them so wealthy.

Foner’s account of the efforts of slaves to get north to freedom emphasizes that, although there were many heroic whites who helped, even their efforts would hardly have been possible “without the courage and resourcefulness, in a hostile environment, of blacks,” ranging from those northern free blacks who served on abolition committees to “the ordinary men and women” who watched for fugitives and did what they could to house them, feed them, and direct them to safety. Because there was a great deal of prejudice against blacks even among abolitionists, black men and women were restricted to jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder, working as maids, waiters, cooks, mariners, and dock workers. Ironically, those same jobs put them in a great position to learn about new fugitives and to help them.

An illustration of Henry “Box” Brown who, in 1849, escaped from slavery in Richmond, Virginia with the assistance of friends and abolitionists, by having himself shipped  in a crate mailed to Philadelphia.

An illustration of Henry “Box” Brown who, in 1849, escaped from slavery in Richmond, Virginia with the assistance of friends and abolitionists, by having himself shipped in a crate mailed to Philadelphia.

This leads to Foner’s point that unlike the impression many Americans have, the phrase “underground railroad” was a metaphor to refer to “an interlocking series of local networks” using a variety of methods – both legal and illegal, to assist fugitives, helping them in many cases to make their way to Canada, where they would not be subject to detection and re-enslavement. Trains had little to do with the process, and moreover, many of the activities of underground railroad were not strictly “underground” at all, but widely publicized.

[The South had a different definition of “Underground Railroad” – one North Carolina newspaper called it “An Association of abolitionists whose first business is to steal, or cause to be stolen, educed or inveigled . . . slaves from southern plantations; . . . to steal him from an indulgent and provident master; to carry him to a cold, strange, and uncongenial country, and there leave him . . . to starve, freeze, and die, in glorious freedom.”]

Foner documents that most fugitives came from the Upper South, since it obviously presented a shorter distance for them to make their way successfully to the North. Nevertheless, and ironically, it was the Upper South that remained in the Union, and the Lower South that decried the “fanatical warfare [of the North] on the constitutional rights of property.”

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Foner also wants to make the point that the resolution of the slavery issue in America should not be seen only as a matter of the whites freeing the slaves; the slaves themselves played a large role in impacting the political dialogue about “liberty” and “freedom” and in taking advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves to take up their rightful role as “people” instead of “property.”

The Lower South hated the fugitive situation not only for the obvious one of losing the monetary value of this “property.” A runaway slave gave lie to the notion, much promulgated by Southerners, that life was not difficult under slavery or that slaves were not “contented.” But in fact, many of their own advertisements for runaway slaves gave them away, for the notices included identifying marks of the slaves that were clear indications of abusive treatment, such as visible scars and mutilated body parts.

In another interesting twist, the fugitive slave situation made white Southerners vigorous proponents of federal action to override local laws in order to ensure the return of slaves to their “owners.” For all that Southerners claimed in later years that the Civil War was about “state’s rights,” they were vigorously in favor of federal hegemony in the interest of perpetuating slavery.

Thus the actions of runaway slaves powerfully affected the national debate over slavery and union, especially because the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ratcheted up the tension between North and South and became a key point of contention in the succession crisis that followed.

Much of the book tells the stories both of individual slaves who made the perilous journey north, and of those who helped them, and how they did so. But Foner’s constant intermixing of these stories with a meta-level analysis ensures that we never lose sight of what each and every brave and perilous action meant for the future of the country.

Discussion: There are so many interesting aspects of Foner’s book that should be a part of every student’s history lessons (as should his analyses in other books of the Reconstruction period, even more mired in myth than “the Underground Railroad”). You will even discover that the practice of holding gift bazarres around holiday time to encourage gift exchanges originated as a money-raising idea of abolitionists. For while some runaways needed just enough funds to get them to Canada, others needed to be purchased from their owners when that was the only way to save them from being taken back to the South. (The fate of these recaptured slaves is also very noteworthy. Their owners spent a great deal of time and money to get them back, but then of course they didn’t want them anymore, so they would sell them further South. This allowed owners to recoup their money, punish the slave, and buy someone more docile the next time around.)

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Tragically, as Foner conveys, some of the best “characters” in this story have so little written about them. I would love to know more, for example, about Louis Napoleon, a black porter who seemed to have been everywhere helping fugitives; when he died, he was credited with having helped over 3,000 escape!

The viciousness and inhumanity of Southern slave owners really doesn’t get enough attention in history books. While Foner doesn’t specifically attack them, by showing the human costs to slaves so clearly and compassionately, he gives both groups their “due.”

Evaluation: Nothing that can make a lover of excellent history more happy than a new book by Eric Foner. His findings are meticulously researched, and yet he invests his work with so much passion and imbues his words with such a strong sense of justice denied, that one never feels a moment of not being totally invested in learning what he has to share.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

May 10, 1740 – South Carolina Enacts the Negro Act of 1740

On this day in history, South Carolina passed an extensive list of rules regulating slavery. The justification for the legislation is provided at the outset:

WHEREAS, in his Majesty’s plantations in America, slavery has been introduced and allowed, and the people commonly called Negroes, Indians, mulattoes and mustizoes, have been deemed absolute slaves, and the subjects of property in the hands of the particular persons, the extend of whose power over such slaves ought to be settled and limited by positive laws, so that the slave may be kept in due subjection and obedience, and the owners and other persons having the care and government of slaves may be restrained from exercising too great rigour and cruelty over them, and that the public peace and order of this Province may be preserved: We pray your most sacred Majesty that it may be enacted….”

The act went on (and on) to ensure that slaves were prohibited form growing their own food, learning to read, earning money, assembling in groups, using loud musical instruments (“which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes”), wearing nice clothes, killing a “whiter person,” and especially not inciting or attempting to incite an insurrection.

Furthermore, the act established that “it shall be always presumed that every Negro, Indian, mulatto, and mustizo, is a slave,” with the burden of proof otherwise on the plaintiff.

You can read the full text of this legislation here.

Reproduction of a handbill advertising a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1769

Reproduction of a handbill advertising a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1769

April 24, 1863 – U.S. Issues Code of Conduct for Warring Combatants

On this day in history, President Lincoln signed the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, General Order № 100, popularly known as the Lieber Instructions, because they were prepared by Francis Lieber.

Professor Francis Lieber

Professor Francis Lieber

Lieber had fought for Prussia in the Napoleonic Wars and later became a Professor of History and Political Economy at South Carolina College (what later became Columbia University). In 1857 he moved north to Columbia Law School where he taught International Law and Civil and Common Law until his death in 1872. He published his series of lectures on the laws and usages of war as “International Law, or, Rules Regulating the Intercourse of States in Peace and War.”

During the American Civil War, Lieber’s three sons were all serving (two for the Union and one for the Confederacy). While in St. Louis searching for one of his sons who had been wounded, Lieber met Union General Henry Halleck, and when Halleck became General-in-Chief in July, 1862, Halleck solicited Lieber’s views on some of the knottier questions presented by war. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton also looked to Lieber for advice. Thus Halleck and Stanton decided to invite Lieber to Washington to sit on a committee to revise the 1806 Articles of War.

Henry Halleck

Henry Halleck

The standards were deemed necessary because the large armies required by the Civil War were made up mostly of untrained volunteers, and often commanded by officers who had no familiarity with established military procedure, rights and duties of officers, treatment of soldiers and civilians, and so on. A lot of confusion and conflicting orders were issued, which frequently had to be rescinded.

Lieber did most of the writing for the new set of rules for armies in the field, and Halleck edited the draft to make sure nothing conflicted with Lincoln’s policies. Then Lincoln issued them on this day in history.

The document included considerations for ethical behavior, insisting on humane treatment of civilian populations in occupied areas. It was the first expressly codified law that forbade giving “no quarter” to the enemy (i.e., killing prisoners of war), except in such cases when the survival of the unit that held these prisoners was threatened. It forbade the use of poisons, stating that use of such puts any force who uses them entirely outside the pale of the civilized nations and peoples; it forbade the use of torture to extract confessions; it described the rights and duties of prisoners of war and of capturing forces. It described the state of war, the state of occupied territories, the ends of war, and discusses permissible and impermissible means to attain those ends; it discussed the nature of states and sovereignties, and insurrections, rebellions, and wars.

The Lieber Code also defended the lawfulness of Emancipation under the laws of war and insisted that those same laws prohibited discrimination on the basis of color among combatants.

European jurists and treaty negotiators picked up Lieber’s text and used it as the basis for negotiations that ultimately formed the basis of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Some of its harsher measures were abolished by the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, however.

You can read the full text of the Lieber Code here.

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April 18, 1949 – Ireland Leaves the Commonwealth of Great Britain

On this day in history, the Irish Parliament officially became a republic, pursuant to the Republic of Ireland Act passed on December 21, 1948.

The Act was scheduled to come into force on April 18 which was the 33rd anniversary of the Easter Rising. (The Easter Rising was an armed insurrection by Irish republicans that began in Ireland during Easter Week, 1916 with the aim of ending British rule in Ireland. The British were able to suppress the Rising quickly, and most of the leaders were executed. This creation of martyrs only fed support for republicanism, eventually leading to a war of independence. The cause was aided immeasurably by the 1921 publication by William Butler Yeats of his poem “Easter, 1916” in which he wrote about the leaders who were killed):

I write it out in a verse –

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.”

You can read the entire poem here.

On June 2, 1949, the British Parliament passed The Ireland Act recognizing Ireland and Northern Ireland as constitutional entities.

You can see the latest amended version of the Act here.

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The Legal Legacy of Slavery

On March 15, 2015, Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family had an excellent opinion piece in the “New York Times” in which he discusses the enduring legacy of slavery. He wrote:

In popular memory – in white memory – the plantations of the antebellum South were like a necklace of country clubs strewn across the land.”

Certainly this is the popular conception promulgated by the widely-read book and widely-seen movie “Gone With the Wind.” But as Ball clarifies:

In reality, they were a chain of work camps in which four million were imprisoned. Their inhabitants, slaves, were very much survivors, in the Holocaust sense of that word.”

But, he notes, people claim that was in the distant past, and everything has changed. He proposes a thought experiment:

If by some method of time travel the former slaves and slaveholders of [any] plantation could be brought face to face with us, they would not find our world entirely alien. In place of the rural incarceration of four million black people, we have the mass incarceration of one million black men. In place of laws that prohibited black literacy throughout the South, we have campaigns by Tea Party and anti-tax fanatics to defund public schools within certain ZIP codes. And we have stop-and-search policing, and frequently much worse, in place of the slave patrols.”

Importantly, he brings up the findings of the U.S. Department of Justice in its investigation of Ferguson, Missouri.

As the “New York Times” reported:

Ferguson, Mo., is a third white, but the crime statistics compiled in the city over the past two years seemed to suggest that only black people were breaking the law. They accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of all arrests.

The racial disparity in those statistics was so stark that the Justice Department has concluded in a report scheduled for release on Wednesday that there was only one explanation: The Ferguson Police Department was routinely violating the constitutional rights of its black residents.”

As Slate captioned this picture:  "The Ferguson Police Department seems unaware of the First Amendment. Also the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth."  Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As Slate captioned this picture: “The Ferguson Police Department seems unaware of the First Amendment. Also the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth.” Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

And although blacks were twice as likely to be searched as white citizens, blacks were 26 percent less likely to have actual contraband.

Ball adds:

…according to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the courts of the largely black and yet white-run town use arrests and fines against African-Americans to raise revenue and keep the city budget from falling into deficit.”

He emphasizes that it is hard to imagine Ferguson is alone in its discriminatory practices.

Even if such behavior is more widespread, is this the same as antebellum treatment of blacks? No, Ball answers, that would be an overstatement. Nevertheless:

…lying behind such recent events is a mentality that originates during the slave period, and provides police action with an unconscious foundation. A mentality that might be called part of the legacy of slavery.”

March 26, 2004 – John Roberts Makes the Case For Judicial Minimalism

On this day in history, the United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, decided the case of PDK Laboratories v. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (362 F.3d 786, 2004).

John Roberts, now Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court but then serving on the Court of Appeals, concurred in part with the judgment filed by Circuit Judge Randolph in a case involving the DEA’s interpretation of the regulation of ephedrine.

Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts

Judge Roberts wrote in his concurrence:

I agree with the majority that PDK has standing to seek review of DEA’s suspension order, and that the order must be vacated because it relies, in significant part, upon a conclusion that PDK violated certain export notification regulations — a conclusion that contradicted relevant agency precedent without explanation. This much is not terribly controversial; DEA conceded its error and all but conceded that this court should remand the decision on that basis. See DEA Br. 59 (“we acknowledge that, in such circumstances, the ordinary practice would be a remand to the agency”). This is a sufficient ground for deciding this case, and the cardinal principle of judicial restraint — if it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more — counsels us to go no further. [emphasis added]

My brethren, however, are not content with this narrow and effectively conceded basis for disposition, and instead adopt an alternative ground of far broader significance, one that precipitates disagreement among us but at the end of the day leads to the same result — vacatur and remand to the agency. I cannot go along for that gratuitous ride.”

As Chief Justice, Roberts has continued to follow the advice with which he began and ended his partial concurrence in PDK Laboratories:

I end where I began — with regret that the majority feels compelled to address far-reaching questions on which we disagree, when they are wholly unnecessary to the disposition of the case. As Justice Frankfurter once put it: ‘These are perplexing questions. Their difficulty admonishes us to observe the wise limitations on our function and to confine ourselves to deciding only what is necessary to the disposition of the immediate case.’ Whitehouse v. Illinois Central R. Co., 349 U.S. 366, 372-73, 75 S.Ct. 845, 850, 99 L.Ed. 1155 (1955).”

March 24, 1953 – Langston Hughes Testifies Before Senator Joseph McCarthy

Joseph Raymond McCarthy (November 14, 1908 – May 2, 1957) was an American politician who served as a Republican U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957. He was most notable for making claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside the federal government and elsewhere. With Republicans taking control of the Senate in 1953, McCarthy became Chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and the Subcommittee on Investigations. In this capacity, he held hearings (later known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings because of McCarthy’s investigation of the Army Signal Corps), during which he called 395 witnesses to testify against themselves and others.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy

African-Americans who vocalized objections to the treatment of blacks in America were considered suspect by McCarthy (and by the FBI). Two of the witnesses called to appear before McCarthy were black: the political activist Eslanda Robeson, wife of Paul Robeson, and the poet Langston Hughes. (At the time of the hearings, there were few blacks in influential positions.)

On March 24, 1953, Langston Hughes testified before the Subcommittee. He was permitted to read a statement to defend himself from charges of Soviet sympathies. He began by stating “I was born a Negro.” He went on to delineate just what that meant in American society at that time. He could not attend the nearby school, the movie theater wouldn’t admit him, white boys stoned him, and his father left the country because this country would not admit him to the bar. At his high school, primarily attended by very poor immigrants, follow students began to tell him about Eugene Debs, a well-known socialist in the early 1900’s. Hughes stated:

“I became interested in whatever I could read that Debs had written or spoken about. I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican party for that matter, and so my interest in whatever may be considered political has been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely really emotional and born out of my own need to find some kind of way of thinking about this whole problem of myself, segregated, poor, colored, and how I can adjust to this whole problem of helping to build America when sometimes I can not even get into a school or a lecture or a concert or in the South go the library and get a book out.”

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

He went on in this vein for a little longer, but by then, the Senators realized they were better off without tackling Hughes. The Subcommittee dismissed him.

Throughout the early 1950s, McCarthy continued to make accusations of communist infiltration of the U. S. government. In August, 1954, a Senate committee was formed to investigate censuring McCarthy. In December, the Senate voted 67-22 to condemn McCarthy, calling his behavior as a committee chairman “inexcusable,” “reprehensible,” and “vulgar and insulting.” Though he remained in the Senate, McCarthy thereafter was largely ignored by the Congress, the White House, and most of the media.

The term “McCarthyism,” coined in 1950 in reference to McCarthy’s practices, was soon applied to similar anti-communist pursuits. Today the term is used more generally to refer to public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents.

The McCarthy Committee might have saved themselves some embarrassment by reading the poetry of Langston Hughes before calling upon him to testify.

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

Freedom
Is a strong seed
Planted
In a great need.

I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.

Langston Hughes, Democracy, 1949

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