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.


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.”


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.)


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

Review of “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

At the end of the 19th century, the United States government was much smaller than it is today. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and many very large businesses had been created, largely through mergers, acquisitions, and other combinations usually referred to in those days as “trusts.” Workers had no statutory right to unionize, and many people felt victimized by the “robber barons” who had become fabulously rich in railroads, the tobacco trust, the steel trust, the oil trust, and the sugar trust, among other large businesses. Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about this era, sometimes called “the gilded age,” and several of the men (and one woman) who made their careers battling for what they perceived to be economic justice.


Many historians and economists believed that powerful governmental regulation was needed to rationalize the structure of the economy in order to make it more just and equal. But the plutocrats who benefited from that economy would surely oppose such regulation–hence the need for a “Bully Pulpit” from which reformers were able to rouse public opinion to compel the government to adopt “progressive” policies. The bully pulpit’s principal practitioners were President Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the term, and the staff of McClure’s Magazine. Goodwin’s book focuses on them and on William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s immediate successor as President, who continued most of Roosevelt’s policies.

It is somewhat hard for the modern reader to appreciate the influence of investigative print journalism in the days before television and radio. Great orators could reach at most a few hundred people at time, but newspaper accounts and magazine articles could reach millions. Goodwin points out that “Investigative journalism…had assumed the proportions of a movement, exerting an influence on the American consciousness hardly less important than that of Theodore Roosevelt himself.” Magazines like McClure’s had become so politically significant that William Allen White quipped it was as if we had “Government by Magazine.” The staff of McClure’s became known as the “muckrakers” for all the dirt they turned up about American business and politics. [Parenthetically, muckraker originally was meant to be a term of abuse, but it became one of approbation because of the high quality and importance of the reporting at McClure’s.]


McClure’s ran serialized featured articles on many industries, frequently uncovering bribery, conflicts of interest, and unfair business practices rife therein. But of all their features, Ida Tarbell’s series on the Standard Oil Trust of John D. Rockefeller stands out as the most influential. Tarbell argued that the oil trust was built by “predatory” price cutting, intimidation of competition, and unfair practices such negotiating discriminatory railroad rates. Tarbell’s father was a small oil producer who ultimately “sold out” to Rockefeller. Goodwin seems to have accepted Tarbell’s view of the industry. Goodwin writes that Tarbell proved that Standard Oil would never have obtained its monopoly without “special transportation privileges.” And once it obtained market domination, “Rather than use this domination and the efficiencies of scale to reduce costs, Standard Oil sought to maximize profits.” The author seems completely unaware of John S. McGee’s 1958 study, Predatory Price Cutting: The Standard Oil (N.J.) Case that appeared in the Journal of Law and Economics (1 J.L. & Econ. 137, 1958). McGee showed convincingly that Standard Oil grew not so much by driving out the competition but rather by outright purchases of the competition, leaving the former competitors quite wealthy and Rockefeller with a virtual monopoly.

standard oil trust

Goodwin sympathizes with Roosevelt, who believed the way to curb the power of the trusts was through detailed regulation. TR focused on behavior like “unscrupulous promotion, overcapitalization, unfair completion, resulting in the crushing out of competition…” He sought to enhance the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission, even to set railroad rates directly. She gives only passing reference to the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was already on the books before TR and the muckrakers and which prohibited “contracts and conspiracies in restraint of trade.” Later developments were to show that the Interstate Commerce Commission (since dissolved) became the least effective governmental agency for promoting economic efficiency, while the Sherman Act became the government’s most powerful weapon against monopoly.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt depicted as the infant Hercules grappling with Standard Oil in a 1906 Puck magazine cartoon

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt depicted as the infant Hercules grappling with Standard Oil in a 1906 Puck magazine cartoon

Quibbles about her version of economics aside, the author writes well about the politics of the era. In writing the book she found that Taft “was a far more sympathetic, if flawed, figure than I had realized.” He had been a highly respected federal judge, and the author of an important antitrust, antimonopoly opinion, Addyston Pipe and Steel v. U.S. (175 U.S. 211, 1899). He had also served with considerable distinction as Governor General of the Philippines and as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War. But even though Roosevelt himself designated Taft as his successor, Taft was emotionally more disposed to be a judge than an executive. His presidency was only partially successful. He attempted to follow Roosevelt’s progressive policies, but he was stymied by the conservative wing of his own (Republican) party.

Roosevelt and Taft, sometime BFFs

Roosevelt and Taft, sometime BFFs

The author goes well beyond the story of public edification and subsequent enactment and enforcement of progressive regulation, and in a sense, this volume is two books in one: one part political and economic history; and a second part personal biography. Goodwin includes a great deal of minutiae about the childhoods, early lives, and later familial relationships of her protagonists. I found myself more interested in the history than the personalities, but Goodwin has sold a lot of books by detailing the personal lives of historical figures. [Cf. Team of Rivals.]

In addition, most of the focus of the story is on domestic politics, and even there, you find practically nothing about Roosevelt’s conviction that whites were the superior race, and that they should try to outbreed other races lest they commit “race suicide.” Goodwin loves her subjects, and mostly endeavors to show them in the best light.

Evaluation: In terms of my personal taste, I think I would have liked this book more if it had less biographical tidbits and if it had been subject to the scrutiny of a good antitrust lawyer or economist. Nonetheless, it is worth reading, and most readers will probably appreciate and enjoy all the personal details about Roosevelt and Taft, and about the importance of their relationship with one another.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2013

May 17, 1814 – The Constitution of Norway Was Signed – Happy Syttende Mai!

On this day in history, Norway adopted its constitution beginning with the declaration:

The Kingdom of Norway is a free, independent, indivisible and inalienable Realm. Its form of government is a limited and hereditary monarchy.”


Norwegian Constitution Day is an official national holiday observed on May 17 each year not only in Norway, but throughout North America in communities with Norwegian-Americans, who call the holiday syttende mai (meaning May Seventeenth).

Stoughton, Wisconsin, for example, has a famous Syttende Mai festival every year that lasts three days. Activities include rosemaling demonstrations, “Viking Games,” a very popular 20 mile run, parade, Norwegian dancing, music, and lots of lefse, lutefisk (made from dried whitefish prepared with lye), and verdensbeste (“The Best Cake in the World”).


Norway has the largest glacier in Northern Europe (The Jostedalsbreen) and the longest road tunnel in the world (The Laerdal Road Tunnel), which stretches over fifteen miles. Since it takes the average driver 20 minutes to travel through the tunnel, special design features were added in order to prevent drivers from falling asleep.

The Laerdal Road Tunnel

The Laerdal Road Tunnel

Interestingly, in Norway you can only buy alcohol from stores called Vinmonopolet, a government-owned retailer that is the only company allowed to sell beverages containing an alcohol content higher than 4.75%. There are only one or two in each city, and none in the countryside towns. No alcohol is sold in shops and supermarkets on Sundays, public holidays and days when elections or referendums are held, nor is it legal for shops to sell alcohol on the 1st or 17th of May.

Nevertheless, binge drinking is said to be a popular activity in Norway. You can read more about research on Norway’s drinking culture here.


May 16, 1989 – USSR and China End Their Thirty-Year Rift

On this day in history, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev met with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing, formally ending a 30-year rift between the two Communist powers.

As The New York Times reported, the itinerary for the meeting had to be changed repeatedly to avoid an estimated 150,000 students and spectators who took over Tiananmen Square:

The demonstrations were doubly embarrassing for the Chinese leaders because of the obvious enthusiasm that many of the protesters felt for Mr. Gorbachev. Several had prepared banners in Russian hailing him as a great reformer, and a crowd of workers and bicyclists applauded when he drove past them on his way to the Great Hall of the People.”

The two leaders met for over two hours. Afterward, 84-year old and frail Mr. Deng along with 81-year-old President Yang hosted a banquet for the clearly more vigorous 58-year old Soviet President. Mr. Yang announced “There is no need for us to recollect the past,” quoting Mr. Deng, and Mr. Gorbachev agreed, saying, “That is an approach that we welcome.”

Both Yang and Gorbachev made the point that they would be pursuing independent foreign policies.

[Deng Xiaoping was the reformist leader of the People’s Republic of China who, after Mao Zedong’s death, led his country towards a market economy from 1978 to 1992.]

Deng Xiaoping in 1979

Deng Xiaoping in 1979

[Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is a former Soviet statesman who was the seventh and last leader of the Soviet Union, having served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, and as the country’s head of state from 1988 until its dissolution in 1991.]

Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987

Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987

May 13, 1862 – The Slave Robert Smalls Makes A Daring Break For Freedom

Robert Smalls, a slave used by Confederates in Charleston, South Carolina during the Civil War to pilot the steamship Planter, committed an amazingly daring and brave act to win freedom for himself and his family.


In the early morning hours of May 13, the white captain and crew of Planter were ashore for the night contrary to orders. The ship was loaded with arms for rebel forts. At around 3 a.m., Smalls collected his wife, children, and twelve other slaves, and commandeered the vessel. He disguised himself as the captain (even assuming the captain’s stance), guided the ship out of the harbor, and surrendered to Union forces.

Union press hailed Smalls as a national hero, calling the ship “the first trophy from Fort Sumter.” A Congressional bill signed by President Lincoln awarded prize money to Smalls, which he used to purchase land near his birthplace in South Carolina. During Reconstruction, he became one of the most powerful political leaders of the state. He served five terms in Congress, and held the position of collector of customs at Beaufort until President Wilson dismissed most black employees of the federal government.

You can learn more about this man and his incredible courage at websites dedicated to his memory here and here.

[On President Wilson’s racism, historians are generally agreed, although high school history textbooks are loathe to include this information. See, e.g., the works of eminent scholars Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, and Thomas Fleming, honored by the Society of American Historians.]

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

May 8, 1884 – Birthdate of Harry S. Truman

On this day in history, Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri.

Just shy of age 61, Truman became the 33rd President of the United States on April 12, 1945, following the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had been serving as Vice President for 83 days.

1944 Election Poster

1944 Election Poster

Only thirteen days after taking office, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson told Truman about the atomic bomb. It was Truman who had to make the decision to use this weapon on Japan.

Other notable events during Truman’s presidency included the founding of the United Nations, issuance of the Truman Doctrine to contain communism, passage of the $13 billion Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the Berlin Airlift of 1948, and the creation of NATO in 1949. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, Truman immediately sent in U.S. troops.

President Truman signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency that initiated U.S. involvement in the Korean War

President Truman signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency that initiated U.S. involvement in the Korean War

The 1948 presidential election is most remembered for Truman’s come-from-behind upset over Republican challenger Thomas Dewey. In the spring of 1948, Truman’s public approval rating stood at 36%, and was nearly universally regarded as incapable of winning the general election.

To campaign, Truman crisscrossed the nation by train, making “whistle stop” speeches from the platform of the car. He covered almost 22,000 miles, with his appearances drawing huge crowds. Nevertheless, the press kept predicting a victory by Dewey, largely based on polls that were conducted by telephone. As social scientists later pointed out, most of Truman’s supporters did not own telephones.

When the election was over, Truman had beaten Dewey by more than two million votes and carried 28 states (303 electoral votes) to Dewey’s 16 (189 electoral votes).

Truman was so widely expected to lose the 1948 election that the Chicago Tribune ran this incorrect headline.

Truman was so widely expected to lose the 1948 election that the Chicago Tribune ran this incorrect headline.

After leaving the presidency, Truman returned to Missouri, turning down a number of opportunities for corporate jobs or commercial endorsements. However, he had no savings, and his only income was his old army pension, less than $120 a month. At that time, former members of Congress and the federal courts received a federal retirement package but there was no such benefit package for former presidents.

Truman took out a personal loan from a Missouri bank shortly after leaving office, and then made a book deal for his memoirs of his time in office. For the memoirs, Truman received only a flat payment of $670,000, and had to pay two-thirds of that in tax. In 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, offering a $25,000 yearly pension to each former president, and it is likely that Truman’s financial status played a role in the law’s enactment.

On December 26, 1972, Truman died at the age of 88 from complications of pneumonia.

When he left office, Truman’s ranking as a president was low, but his reputation has climbed steadily in the ensuing years.

Truman poses in 1959 at the recreation of the Truman Oval Office at the Truman Library in 1959, with the famous "The Buck Stops Here" sign on his desk.

Truman poses in 1959 at the recreation of the Truman Oval Office at the Truman Library in 1959, with the famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign on his desk.


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