ONE DAY not long ago, my daughter came home from school and told me about the Underground Railroad. I remember her disappointment when I explained that it was neither a railroad nor underground. ‘Then what was it?’ she asked.
Good question. Like the Western frontier, Valley Forge or the Montgomery bus boycott, the Underground Railroad has become part of our national mythology, a reassuring story of obstacles overcome and virtue vindicated. As Fergus M. Bordewich writes in Bound for Canaan, one of the most controversial movements in American history has been reduced to ‘a kind of national fairy tale, in which the fugitives themselves [are] cast only as bit players, and abolitionists stripped of their disturbing radicalism.’
Only in recent years has the Underground Railroad attracted the sustained investigation it deserves, including a spate of books and documentary films, as well as the opening of a dedicated museum, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. This new interest springs in part from the politics of the historical profession, with its demand for more inclusive accounts of American history, but it also bespeaks a widespread hunger for stories of progressive activism and interracial collaboration in an age seemingly barren of opportunities for either. Bound for Canaan epitomizes this tradition. Blending historical imagination with a novelist’s sense of character, Bordewich, the author of Killing the White Man’s Indian, brings to life a small group of black and white Americans who defied popular opinion and the authority of the federal government to combat what they regarded as a fundamental moral evil.
No one knows who first coined the term, but by the 1840s the loose networks that had emerged to spirit fugitive slaves to freedom were universally known as the Underground Railroad. Stops along the line were ‘stations,’ operatives became ‘conductors’ and fugitives ‘passengers’ or ‘cars.’ It was an obvious enough metaphor—the system’s emergence coincided with the first great American surge of railroad construction—but it was and is somewhat misleading. The Underground Railroad published no maps or timetables. Networks tended to be local and fluid, with little central control or oversight. Secrecy was essential. Frederick Douglass, probably the system’s most famous passenger, refused for decades to reveal his escape route lest it compromise the efforts of others. Fugitives, he noted, had no use for an ‘upperground railroad.’
Unfortunately, the qualities that ensured the system’s success have impeded historians seeking to reconstruct it. Bordewich comes as close as anyone ever has, marshaling evidence from an array of sources to chart the movements of fugitives. Not surprisingly, he focuses much of his attention on the banks of the Ohio River, the primary crossing point for fleeing slaves and the scene of a decades-long cat-and-mouse game between ‘conductors’ and slave catchers. But he also examines less familiar subjects, from the so-called ‘Saltwater Underground’ (maritime networks used by slaves in the Deep South) to the black expatriate communities emerging in Canada.
The book is organized around individual stories, many of which retain their power to inspire, horrify and humble. The climactic scene of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—Eliza leaping from floe to floe in the frozen Ohio, clutching her infant to her breast—was not mere melodrama but an account of an actual escape. As it happened, the woman’s crossing was witnessed by one of southern Ohio’s most notorious slave catchers, who was so moved by the spectacle that he declined to arrest her, instead directing her to a nearby safe house. ‘Woman, you have won your freedom,’ he said. The fugitive, whose name is lost to history, returned to Kentucky three years later to liberate the rest of her family.
Though the book’s focus is on stories, several overarching arguments emerge. Contrary to the image prevalent today, most operatives were not white but black—both slaves and free people of color who risked their own freedom and even their lives to assist their brethren. Bordewich also emphasizes the religious motivations of his subjects, or at least the white ones. Many were Quakers; most others were evangelical Protestants. All were products of ‘a deeply pious era [in which] Judgment Day was an event as real as the annual spring planting and autumn harvest.’ Persuaded that slavery was sinful, they acted. As one New Yorker put it, ‘We must obey God rather than man.’
In the antebellum period, as in our own time, defying the law in deference to one’s personal religious convictions was not a popular position. Underground Railroad operatives may be hailed as heroes today, but in their own era they were condemned as fanatics, a lunatic fringe whose reckless self-righteousness jeopardized the republic’s survival. As unsettling as it may be to some, the most obvious modern analogue may be the extreme wing of the antiabortion movement, which has used direct action—even occasional violence—to prevent abortions, in defiance of law and majority opinion. Bordewich himself acknowledges the parallel but elects not to pursue it, noting only that his subjects’˜ religious zeal was ‘balanced by generous idealism, and by an uncompromising devotion to the rights of others.’
The final question, of course, is whether the Underground Railroad mattered. A New Orleans newspaper editor, writing on the eve of the Civil War, claimed that 1,500 slaves per year were spirited away by Northerners. Bordewich is more generous, estimating that more than 100,000 fugitives were liberated in the 30 years between 1830 and 1860, perhaps a third of whom ended up in Canada. It does not seem an impressive total—over the same period, the enslaved population in the South increased from 2 million to 4 million—but numbers alone do not tell the tale. As Bordewich notes, the Underground Railroad transformed anti-slavery politics. ‘Without the confrontational activists of the underground,’ he writes, ‘the abolitionist movement 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 success of the system, in turn, radicalized Southerners, who—incensed by Northern complicity in the theft of their property—demanded ever more draconian fugitive-slave legislation. The end result, of course, was civil war—a war that killed more than half a million people and liberated more than 4 million others. A complex legacy indeed, not easily reduced to a fairy-tale moral.
James T. Campbell teaches at Brown University and chairs its Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.