The term “Underground Railroad” had no meaning to the generations that preceded the coming of the rails and engines in the 1820s. Though the origin of the term “Underground Railroad” has not been determined, it refers to the effort of enslaved African Americans to gain their freedom by escaping bondage. What is known, is that by the 1820’s, both those who aided freedom seekers and those who were outraged by the loss of their human property began to refer to escaped slaves as part of an “Underground Railroad.”
The very existence of slavery, the “peculiar institution,” as referred to by Thomas Jefferson, undermined that great call of equality sounded in Jefferson’s own Declaration of Independence. The Underground Railroad — from the first decision to run away, through the actions of African American-organized Vigilance committees, to the liberating actions of John Brown — were all reminders of African American initiative and the notion of slavery as the single great immorality of that era. It provided an opportunity for Americans of all kinds to play a role in resisting slavery.
In the eighteenth century, slavery existed in all parts of the American colonies, though to distinct degrees in different locations. African Americans held in the northern area were more likely to be household servants, and slave owners were likely to possess only one or two slaves. However, in the agricultural South, enslaved Africans propelled the economy, and owning large numbers of African Americans was seen as a symbol of high wealth and class.
Wherever slavery existed, there were efforts to escape, at first to maroon communities in remote or rugged terrain on the edge of settled areas. Their acts of self-emancipation made them “fugitives” according to the laws of the times. While most freedom seekers began their journey unaided and many completed their self-emancipation without assistance, each decade in which slavery was legal in the United States saw an increase in active efforts to assist escape.
Though the institution of slavery was much larger in the South, especially during the nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad stretched the breadth and width of North America, and to shores beyond. It sometimes existed openly in the North, or just below the surface of everyday life in the upper South. The term described activities that were locally organized, but, with no real center or “headquarters,” per se. In its most developed form, the Underground Railroad offered local aid to runaways, assisting them from one point to another. “Conductors” would guide the freedom seekers to a safe “station” on the route North.
The rapidity with which the term became commonly used around 1830 did not mean that incidents of resistance to slavery increased or that more attempts were made to escape from bondage. Freedom seeking activity in North America had begun, of course, with the growth of slavery in the seventeenth century. It meant simply that more white northerners were prepared to aid freedom seekers and to give assistance to northern African Americans who aided freedom seekers. On January 1, 1831, William Lloyd Garrison published the first issue of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. That event marks the traditional beginning of open abolitionist attack on the institution of slavery.
In many cases the decision to assist a freedom seeker may have been a spontaneous reaction as the opportunity presented itself. It was, however, a series of events in the decade preceding the Civil War that ignited Underground Railroad activity to unprecedented levels. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, part of the Compromise of 1850, marked the beginning of the most intensive era of Underground Railroad activity. To abolitionists, the passage of that law seemed to make the whole of the North open to slaving excursions. Freedom seekers were no longer safe, even in abolitionist towns, as the right of slaveholders to remove their alleged property to the South was backed by the might of federal government. This federal law mandated citizen assistance to slavers, and allocated resources and men to insure the return of human property to the South. The accused had no right to a jury trial, and commissioners appointed to adjudicate these cases received higher compensation for finding in favor of the slaveholder. With the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act, abolitionists and sympathizers had to be willing to break federal law to assist freedom seekers. At that time, the Underground Railroad became deliberate and organized.
Despite the illegality of their actions, and with little regard for their own personal safety, people of all races, classes and genders participated in this widespread form of civil disobedience. Spanish territories to the south in Florida, British areas to the north in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and other foreign countries offered additional destinations for freedom. Free African American communities in urban areas in both the South and the North were the destination of some freedom seekers.
The maritime industry was an important source for spreading information as well as offering employment and transportation. Through ties to the whaling industry, the Pacific West Coast and perhaps Alaska became a destination. Military service provided another avenue as thousands of African Americans joined the military, from the colonial era to the Civil War, as a means to gain their freedom. During the Civil War, many freedom seekers sought protection and liberty by escaping to the lines of the advancing Union army.
The Underground Railroad, by its very existence, exposed the harsh realities of slavery. Slavery was not, as many slaveholders insisted, a benevolent institution that provided indolent African Americans with food and shelter. Beginning in the 1830’s, slave owners portrayed African Americans as incapable of caring for themselves or organizing for the good of the community — all requirements for citizenship in a Republic. Slavery would Christianize and civilize the African, said slave owning elites, and African Americans were content in bondage, a historical myth that lived long into the twentieth century.
However, the Underground Railroad refuted these overtly racist claims that African Americans could not act or organize on their own. Freedom seekers refuted the claim by Southern apologists that slavery was a “positive good” with their feet. Slaveholders sought to minimize the contrary view of slavery generated by freedom seekers in novel ways, such as the diagnoses of Samuel Cartwright at the University of Louisiana of “Drapetomania” — the disease that caused enslaved African Americans to run away.
The Underground Railroad gave ample evidence of African American capabilities. It also brought together, however uneasily, men and women of both races to work on issues of mutual moral concern. At the most dramatic level, the Underground Railroad provided stories of individual acts of bravery and suffering, guided escapes from the South, rescues of arrested freedom seekers in the North, and complex communication systems.
The Underground Railroad reached its height between 1850 and 1860.One estimate suggests that by 1860, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the “Railroad.”
Source: National Park Service
Riding the Underground Railroad (historic text by Levi Coffin, 1850)
Slavery in the United States (main page)