A misleading history of the Underground Railroad.


As the twentieth century came to an end, Americans grew increasingly interested in the history of the nineteenth. Civil War commemorations, re-enactments, books and films proliferated, depicting the nation’s traumatic division, as well as chronicling its redemptive narratives of suffering, heroism and, of course, freedom. The emancipation struggle, however, rested a bit uncertainly in this Civil War enthusiasm, sometimes ignored, often subordinated in a story that focused on battle. Yet the eagerness to understand national identity that has animated this attention to history cannot be separated from the American dilemma of race, with its roots in slavery and branches stretched across our own time. As the 1990s saw a doubling in the number of Civil War books published each year, it also witnessed an extraordinary flourishing of interest in the Underground Railroad, a phenomenon that in the course of the decade yielded two federal laws, state programs involving millions of dollars for preservation and memorialization, and activities in schools and communities across the nation.

Under the directive of the 1998 National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act, the National Park Service now manages a program designed to link state and local efforts into a “mosaic of community, regional and national stories” by certifying the authenticity of Underground Railroad sites and encouraging preservation and education programs. The Underground Railroad, the National Park Service proclaims, “bridged the divides of race, religion, sectional differences and…joined the American ideals of liberty and freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the extraordinary actions of ordinary men and women.” The Network to Freedom program emphasizes the “historical significance of the Underground Railroad in the eradication of slavery and the evolution of our national civil rights movement, and its relevance in fostering the spirit of racial harmony and national reconciliation.”

The assumptions and attractions of this history are clear and explicit. Ordinary people undertake acts of heroism motivated by our national principles. Their efforts are effective in diluting the stain of slavery. Blacks and whites work together in a spirit of racial harmony that remains an unrealized national ideal and a still-elusive reality more than a century later. Just as the Underground Railroad freed nineteenth-century slaves from bondage, so it can offer modern Americans a promise of freedom from –or at least an alternative to–the historical burden of racism and slavery. This is an inspirational story, one far easier to present in school curriculums and in popular commemoration than the divisive and complex experience of American slavery. The Underground Railroad speaks powerfully to what historian David Blight has called “our need to find an ennobling past.”

But we should be wary of a history built on need and desire. The present always uses the past for its own purposes, but the best historical writing attempts to contain that inescapable impulse in order to understand history in its own terms. The Underground Railroad has always made that difficult. It is a metaphor; it was never a railroad, nor was it under the ground. The term emerged in the 1830s to describe networks of support and communication assisting slaves escaping from bondage to the North and freedom. The imperatives of secrecy prevented extensive documentation of illegal and necessarily clandestine activities; romanticized memories exaggerated levels of formal organization, coherence and extensiveness; prevailing racial assumptions shaped recollection. By the end of the nineteenth century, a popular mythology of the Underground Railroad had arisen that celebrated altruistic whites serving as “conductors” for the benefit of largely passive black “passengers.” Legend claimed locations across the North as former “stations” on the Railroad, often with a hidden passage or room offered as definitive evidence for a site’s authenticity.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s sparked a revolution in the historical understanding of slavery and abolition and brought significant revisions to the Underground Railroad narrative, as the activities of blacks both as fugitives and “conductors” claimed a more central place in the story. Nevertheless, the power of myth continued to challenge historical accuracy, even as interest in the Railroad grew.

Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America enters this complex historical–and political–tradition. His very subtitle suggests how passionately he identifies with the moral agenda of the Underground Railroad story, which he regards as “an answer to slavery’s legacy of hurt and shame.” But his claims for it are hardly limited to its moral significance. The Underground Railroad was, he asserts, “the country’s first racially integrated civil rights movement,” “one of the most ambitious political undertakings in American history,” “an even greater record of personal bravery and self-sacrifice than is generally known,” “a movement with far-reaching political and moral consequences that changed relations between the races in ways more radical than any that…would be seen again until the second half of the twentieth century.”

To make such claims, it is necessary to establish what the Underground Railroad actually was, to capture this poorly documented, ill-defined, elusive and allusive concept. The term has been employed so imprecisely that it has frequently been applied to all flights from slavery to freedom in the antebellum period. This would include escapes that predated the name itself, which only came into use when the emergence of railroads supplied the metaphor. Bordewich follows this custom and invokes the Underground Railroad regardless of the formal or organized nature of a slave’s passage to freedom and regardless of the fugitive’s self-conscious awareness of a structured network of assistance. For example, one of Bordewich’s heroes, a bondsman named Arnold Gragston, who ferried many slaves across the Ohio before eventually fleeing himself, later responded to a question about the Underground Railroad by noting, “I don’t know as we called it anything.” But Bordewich does not quote this remark. Instead he uses Gragston as one of many examples to show that the Underground Railroad by the late 1830s had “taken recognizable form,” developed “trunk lines,” an identifiable leadership structure of “conductors” and members and patterns of “sophisticated coordination.” The Underground Railroad becomes a reality for the modern historian that it was not for the nineteenth-century participant.

Indeed, most slaves who fled bondage did not benefit from an organized network of assistance and communication. The majority of those who ran away stayed within the South, hiding in woods and swamps, disappearing into cities, causing steady and significant disruption of the South’s “peculiar institution,” but never crossing the Mason-Dixon line to freedom. Fugitives who did escape northward came overwhelmingly from the border states. As Bordewich himself acknowledges, “Very few successful freedom seekers were from the Deep South.” Eighty percent of Southern-born blacks counted in the Ontario census of 1861 were from the three states of Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky.

Bordewich writes of a “hemorrhaging of fugitive slaves.” Yet these slaves were more a trickle than a flood, their origins geographically limited, their numbers a tiny fraction in comparison to those who remained captive or never succeeded in their efforts to claim freedom. Bordewich generously estimates that the Railroad transported approximately 100,000 “passengers” in the course of the nineteenth century. Even if Bordewich’s figure is right, it is a small fraction of the slave population. In 1860 there were 4 mil lion slaves living in the United States, and we can only estimate the total number of those caught in bondage from 1800 to 1860, which is of course the population from which Bordewich’s figure of 100,000 came. Each successful fugitive meant a life transformed and saved from slavery’s oppression, and we must not discount the importance of every act of self-liberation by daring and resourceful fugitives. But if we emphasize the reassuring myths of the Underground Railroad over the exploitative realities of the slave system, we distort the past by ignoring the experience of the many for the dramatic and inspiring stories of an exceptional and unrepresentative few –overwhelmingly from the border states, overwhelmingly young, over whelmingly male.

Although the numerical impact of the Underground Railroad on the slave system was limited, the political and symbolic force of fugitives was, as Bordewich argues, significant. White Southerners came to believe in an Underground Railroad far more organized and vast than anything that actually existed. Their consequent sense of threat and anger would contribute meaningfully to mounting sectional tensions. The South’s escalating demands that fugitives be returned from Northern states led to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a measure that proved incendiary by putting the weight of federal law on the side of slave catchers who came north to retrieve runaways, some of whom had been living in freedom for decades. The battles over fugitives across the North made it impossible to compartmentalize slavery as a Southern concern. The fugitive law made slavery the property of the nation.

Bordewich explores a number of these confrontations between slavery and freedom in some detail, using them as a vehicle for expanding his consideration of antislavery activism. He does so, however, in a manner that further muddles his definition of the Underground Railroad. John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry establishes him, in Bordewich’s view, as “the apotheosis of the Underground Railroad,” while the federal policy of welcoming tens of thousands of slaves who fled to Union lines during the Civil War is treated as a version of the Underground Railroad on a “scale that would help destroy the plantation economy of the Confederacy.” Redefining every action that weakened slavery as part of the work of the Underground Railroad makes it far easier to argue for its impact and significance, but it also blurs definition and understanding.

The abolition movement and the Underground Railroad, Bordewich acknowledges, “were never completely congruent.” But his wishful exaggeration of their convergences has produced a book that is about both and fully focused on neither. He admits he has “not written an encyclopedic survey of the underground,” though he relates many of its most dramatic tales and vividly demonstrates the extraordinary bravery and commitment of its black and white participants. But he tells these stories as part of a broad overview of slavery and antislavery that is distorted by its subordination to the Underground Railroad narrative. His presentation of slavery includes fundamental factual errors; for example, 4,000 slave owners did not own two-thirds of the South’s slaves in 1860; US Census data, as cited in Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor, indicates that 1 percent of slave holders (3,830 in 1860) owned 2.4 percent of slaves. And the portrait of abolition that emerges here is a curious one. Without the Underground Railroad, Bordewich suggests, it might “never have become anything more than a vast lecture hall in which right-minded, white Americans could comfortably agree that slavery was evil.” The last half-century of scholarship on abolition has advanced quite a different view.

The Gag Rule controversy, all but ignored by Bordewich, offers an illustration of the point. The Congressional battle over how to treat the tens of thousands of petitions forced upon Washington by antislavery activists–particularly women–became, under the leadership of John Quincy Adams, almost as powerful a challenge to the North’s compartmentalization of slavery as the Fugitive Slave Act would later prove. The near absence of this conflict from Bordewich’s book illustrates an important shortcoming of his portrait of the antislavery movement. In its focus on individuals acting heroically within the loose networks of the Underground Railroad, it makes little room for the role of politics in the fight against slavery. In Bordewich’s interpretation, the Underground Railroad, rather than any actions in the political realm, set the stage for slavery’s demise. The Mexican War, the Wilmot Proviso, shifting party politics, debates over the territories–all of which heightened the tensions around slavery–are marginalized or entirely overlooked.

A study of the Underground Railroad need not address every dimension of the antebellum struggle over slavery. But a book that seeks to establish the Underground Railroad as the defining force in a “war for the soul of America” and that portrays a range of other antislavery actions as virtual manifestations of the Railroad must carefully weigh the impact of the Underground Railroad in relation to other antislavery endeavors. Bordewich does not offer such a balanced evaluation but provides instead a fragmented version of the movement against slavery, which he claims had the Underground Railroad at its heart.

In 2004 The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in Cincinnati, Ohio, signaling a continuing American fascination with the extraordinary tales of individuals who acted decisively for freedom. Fergus Bordewich’s telling of these stories will find a ready audience, for his book represents a highly readable, richly detailed, inspiring contribution that integrates many discoveries and revisions of recent decades–most notably, stories of black agency–into an accessible narrative for the general reader. But it offers a vision of the past too much determined by the hopes and needs of the present. The story of slavery and of the efforts to overthrow it should not be seen primarily or exclusively through the lens of a movement whose contours can only hazily be identified or defined, a movement that offers a feel-good story of the past that may divert us from the real burdens of slavery’s legacy in American life.

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