An important book of epic scope on America's first racially integrated, religiously inspired movement for change The civil war brought to a climax the country's bitter division. But the beginnings of slavery's denouement can be traced to a courageous band of ordinary Americans, black and white, slave and free, who joined forces to create what would come to be known as the Underground Railroad, a movement that occupies as romantic a place in the nation's imagination as the Lewis and Clark expedition. The true story of the Underground Railroad is much more morally complex and politically divisive than even the myths suggest. Against a backdrop of the country's westward expansion arose a fierce clash of values that was nothing less than a war for the country's soul. Not since the American Revolution had the country engaged in an act of such vast and profound civil disobedience that not only challenged prevailing mores but also subverted federal law. Bound for Canaan tells the stories of men and women like David Ruggles, who invented the black underground in New York City; bold Quakers like Isaac Hopper and Levi Coffin, who risked their lives to build the Underground Railroad; and the inimitable Harriet Tubman. Interweaving thrilling personal stories with the politics of slavery and abolition, Bound for Canaan shows how the Underground Railroad gave birth to this country's first racially integrated, religiously inspired movement for social change.
He identifies a group of North Carolina Quakers who helped runaway slaves find a home in Quaker communities in Indiana. Most of these were eventually driven out by their slave owning neighbors, but helped establish communities for fugitive slaves and links between the north and south. He also discusses Isaac Hopper and John Rankin, who help hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of runaways as they passes through the Philadelphia Cincinnati areas, respectively.
He then shows the gradual improvement in the organization of the railroad, along with an increase in African-American participation. Some of those African-Americans were escaped slaves and others were legally free, but both faced dire consequences if caught. Of course, the star of the show is Harriet Tubman, but Bordewich makes a strong effort to show that she was only the most prominent of the conductors but far from the only one. He looks at David Ruggles, a free black in New York who helped hundreds of escaped slaves at great personal risk, including one attempt to kidnap him to enslave him in the south. The book also looks at Josiah Henson, who was the model for Uncle Tom. He was well-educated for a slave and tried to buy his own freedom before being cheated by his owner. He then escaped with his family to Canada where he set up a haven for escaped slaves and continued his career as a Methodist minister.
The book makes several important points. The first was the decentralization of the railroad. It wasn't an organization as much as a group of people with similar ideals whose cooperation grew over time. It also points out that religion was the driving force for most whites who were involved. Many of them thought slavery was a sin but still thought that blacks were inferior. Even those who did not demonstrated a strongly patronizing attitude towards blacks. The book also demonstrates that most people involved were taking personal risks, including long prison sentences or death, although some areas, such as Philadelphia, Detroit or Syracuse were relatively safe for railroad work.
The final section demonstrates that events like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Bleeding Kansas of 1854-5 and John Brown's raid of 1859 helped galvanize abolitionism, which eventually made the railroad almost obsolete. In the 1830s, abolitionism was a fringe movement, even in the north. By the 1850s, the conflict had risen to such a height that northerners who were committed to abolition would still offer tacit support for the railroad because it represented northern freedom against southern encroachments. By the time of the Civil War, it was almost unnecessary for the railroad to be underground in large sections of the north, which further infuriated southerners.
His epilogue illustrates that process. He argues that the railroad was a driving force towards the civil war. Its early successes are inspired northerners and upset southerners. Southerners increased their enforcement of fugitive slave laws and hyperbole against abolitionism. Northerners saw these actions and read these statements are slowly moved towards the abolitionist position. It is a convincing point and very well made.
This is one of the best books I have read on resistance to slavery. It is geared towards a popular audience because it doesn't focus on obscure historical theses but provides fascinating stories that show how this movement fit together, grew and influenced a nation. And it showed how a small group of people fighting for the rights of others were eventually able to get the majority on their side and change the course of a nation.
This book chronicles what may be the first large scale example of Christian resistance to injustice in America's history. I was surprised at how loose and (apparently) disorganized it was - a social movement based entirely on ordinary people doing the right thing when the opportunity presented itself - despite some very real threats and difficulties. It also made me understand some of the issues - with heartrending clarity - that affected very the real men, women children - families - of slavery.
Unlike other accounts of the Underground Railroad I have seen the author gives some credit to the African Americans. He looks beyond Fredrick Douglass and Harriett Tubman and examines the work of more fugitives from bondage who were vital to the success of the UGRR. In addition to many people working north of the Ohio River, he tells of two people who remained in servitude while they worked for the UGRR. First there is Saul, a man who in the early days of the 19th century helped the Quaker community identify persons needing assistance to return north and Arnold Gragston of Mason County in northern Kentucky who rowed escapees across the Ohio for four years prior to the Civil War while remaining in bondage himself.
I would have liked to know more about the African-Americans who served the UGRR from within ‘Egypt’, those that stayed behind, and helped others make the journey to the Promised Land. Bordewich does what he can with the sources available but there are very few documents recording that aspect of the resistance against slavery. Levi Coffin wrote about Saul and Gragston wrote a memoir after gaining his freedom. This weakness seems to be simply a lack of sources.
This book is should be read by anyone wanting to gain an understanding of Americans resistance to the “peculiar institution” of slavery.