Read Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Eric Foner Online


More than any other scholar, Eric Foner has influenced our understanding of America's history. Now, making brilliant use of extraordinary evidence, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian once again reconfigures the national saga of American slavery and freedom.A deeply entrenched institution, slavery lived on legally and commercially even in the northern states that had abolMore than any other scholar, Eric Foner has influenced our understanding of America's history. Now, making brilliant use of extraordinary evidence, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian once again reconfigures the national saga of American slavery and freedom.A deeply entrenched institution, slavery lived on legally and commercially even in the northern states that had abolished it after the American Revolution. Slaves could be found in the streets of New York well after abolition, traveling with owners doing business with the city's major banks, merchants, and manufacturers. New York was also home to the North’s largest free black community, making it a magnet for fugitive slaves seeking refuge. Slave catchers and gangs of kidnappers roamed the city, seizing free blacks, often children, and sending them south to slavery.To protect fugitives and fight kidnappings, the city's free blacks worked with white abolitionists to organize the New York Vigilance Committee in 1835. In the 1840s vigilance committees proliferated throughout the North and began collaborating to dispatch fugitive slaves from the upper South, Washington, and Baltimore, through Philadelphia and New York, to Albany, Syracuse, and Canada. These networks of antislavery resistance, centered on New York City, became known as the underground railroad. Forced to operate in secrecy by hostile laws, courts, and politicians, the city’s underground-railroad agents helped more than 3,000 fugitive slaves reach freedom between 1830 and 1860. Until now, their stories have remained largely unknown, their significance little understood.Building on fresh evidence—including a detailed record of slave escapes secretly kept by Sydney Howard Gay, one of the key organizers in New York—Foner elevates the underground railroad from folklore to sweeping history. The story is inspiring—full of memorable characters making their first appearance on the historical stage—and significant—the controversy over fugitive slaves inflamed the sectional crisis of the 1850s. It eventually took a civil war to destroy American slavery, but here at last is the story of the courageous effort to fight slavery by "practical abolition," person by person, family by family....

Title : Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
Author :
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ISBN : 9780393244076
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 320 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad Reviews

  • Chrissie
    2018-12-11 08:21

    I have no doubt that extensive research lies behind this book. I do not doubt its accuracy. It is filled with details about the growth of antislavery organizations, but as the book clearly states the Underground Railroad was in reality an "umbrella association" of independent, sometimes competing groups which very much relied on the efforts of single individuals. It was not controlled from the top. The book focuses upon the antislavery proponents that lived in New York. This is partially explained by the fact that New York was home to the North's largest free black community, but New York plays such a prominent role that this should be indicated in the title. In addition the Underground Railroad was not hidden; everyone knew of it. The title is misleading, and it implies that you will be given a more exciting story than what is delivered. The book description goes on to say that "...the city s underground-railroad agents helped more than 3,000 fugitive slaves reach freedom between 1830 and 1860. Until now, their stories have remained largely unknown..." The central focus of this book is not the plight of these fugitives. Their stories are primarily collected in one chapter, chapter seven, near the book's end. No, the main focus is instead a plethora of historical details of the growth of the movement, its weak organization, its factional divisions, its agents, funding and slavery’s ties with business. Relevant laws and to what extent they were actually enforced, court proceedings and supportive publications are covered in detail. The book is rather dry. The book lacks structure. It would be easier to remember all the laws, fugitive cases, leaders and controversies if the text had been better organized into a more cohesive structure. The details become a jumble in my head. There are quotes that are of little importance and other superfluous information too. Better editing please.So the Underground Railroad saved about 3 to 4000 fugitives, the numbers being extremely hard to verify, but the slave population was 4 million* in the South. 0.1 % benefited. Of course it was still important, but it was weakly organized and depended to a very large extent on the efforts of private individuals. All of this is good to know.The narration of the audiobook, by J. D. Jackson, was clear and easy to follow, as long as I didn't fall asleep.Now I am going to read Twelve Years a Slave. It will be good to understand the laws and conditions of life in the antebellum era as a background to the more personal tale of the second book.*ETA: Thought I should mention that the 40 million figure is not found in the book by Foner! My source is instead the book Capital in the Twenty-First Century byThomas Piketty. On page 159 one can read the following: "By 1860 the proportion of slaves in the overall population of the United States had fallen to around 15 percent (about 4 million slaves in a total population of 30 million), owing to rapid population growth in the North and West. In the South, however, the proportion remained at 40%: 4 million slaves and 6 million whites for a total population of 10 million."

  • Chris
    2018-12-06 12:54

    At times, I was frustrated with the weight given to NYC and for a while it almost seems like too much background material. Yet, after finishing this book, I understand more and know more than simply Harriet Tubman. Rich in information.

  • Marla
    2018-12-12 14:52

    I found this a very interesting story. I learned a lot. Great as an audiobook.

  • Jill
    2018-12-07 12:01

    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.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. 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

  • Peter Mcloughlin
    2018-12-08 12:57

    A time of ultimate polarization over the ultimate wedge issue. I am a bit partisan in my politics and my world view can often have good guys and bad guys weighing heavily in it. The Issue of Slavery which is not debatable today was a sectional hot button issue once. There were two contending sides and history now judges (rightly) one side on the side of angels and other with a more sulfurous tinge to it. Abolitionists who were filled with justified anger form an underground railroad a network with a huge amount of organization from free African Americans , philanthropists, Journalists, religious leaders, radicals formed to bring slaves up a north and later to Canada and focus a spotlight on Slavery and make it a national issue. The more I read about this movement that was very controversial at the time I think about the Ferguson protests and various movements that are noisy uncomfortable and divisive. No one knows if say occupy or the teaparty will be judged the angel or demon in the future but in todays climate of polarization people are taking sides. Is the polarization needless right now? I don't know. Was it needless then? resoundingly no. This issue had to be faced and polarization was the price of a conscience working its will in history. This book is one of those chin scratchers of a history book. Not for their time but for ours.

  • Nancy Regan
    2018-12-15 10:59

    Impeccably academic, slightly dry, but pleasantly readable, Gateway's scope is smaller than the title suggests. Foner's focus is on New York City's anti-slavery movement, and touches on Pennsylvania, upstate New York and New England only to the extent that they interact with the NYC movements. And, since he sticks to documentary evidence, much of which was destroyed after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made aiding fugitives even riskier, the book is short on experiences of actual "passengers". But the politics of anti-slavery are well addressed and eye-opening for me. There were bitter arguments over whether relocation of former slaves to Africa should be promoted, and even over whether money should be spent on aiding individual fugitives.

  • Emilie Burack
    2018-12-15 13:20

    Couldn't put it down. A refreshing new look at NYC's role in the underground railroad, and the brave, selfless people who risked everything to help thousands escape to freedom. Also a great reminder of how the Fugitive Slave Law and other pro-slavery legislation terrorized both free and fugitive African Americans of the time. Foner's use of Sydney Howard Gay's meticulous records of fugitives gives readers a very cool look at human light shining through the darkest of hours...

  • Mark
    2018-11-23 12:11

    Interesting but not quite what I thought. I thought this would be about the composition of the Underground Railroad, how it was set up and then the use of the UGRR to free Blacks from the South. However the book spent a great amount of time on the laws which established the rights of Slave Holders to recovery their property and the impact on individuals who were trying to free/protect fugitive or slaves already free. The book also spent a great deal of time explaining the difference between the abolitionists and those seeking the emancipation of the slaves (I thought they were one and the same but they were not)!!! Also well covered where the differences between these two schools of thought and the resultant turmoil in the ability to help blacks move from the south to northern states or Canada. For what this book actually depicted - the laws impacting fugitive or free slaves, the research was well done, the notes were informative and backed up the text and it was a very good history of the laws which truly resulted in the Civil War. So if a reader is interested in that particular aspect of history, I would give this book a 4.

  • Karen Wyle
    2018-12-10 07:01

    This is the second of Foner's books I've read, and once again his subject is more interesting than his treatment of it. His initial focus is as much on the internecine squabbles among different New York abolitionist groups as on how any of them, or various individuals, assisted fugitive slaves. Foner does eventually make his way to the latter topic. Overall, I learned quite a bit about how the citizens of various states approached the question of whether to help the slaves trying to escape, or the owners trying to recapture them. There is also a good deal of detail about the Fugitive Slave Act, its precursors, and where and how it was and was not successfully enforced.

  • Clif Hostetler
    2018-12-14 14:00

    Eric Foner’s ‘Gateway to Freedom’ tells gripping tales of the Underground RailroadBY WENDY SMITHLOS ANGELES TIMES01/16/2015 6:00 AM 01/17/2015 8:46 PMEric Foner’s vivid new book, about the semiorganized system to aid runaway slaves popularly known as the Underground Railroad, makes an excellent companion to “Reconstruction,” his magisterial 1988 account of the post-Civil War effort to bring racial justice to the American South.In both histories, Foner appreciates the crucial role of white radicals while emphasizing that black people were active combatants in the struggles to end slavery and to establish meaningful freedom for African-Americans.Like its predecessor, “Gateway to Freedom” makes palpable the nuances and complexities of the past. “The ‘underground railroad,’” Foner writes, “should be understood not as a single entity but as an umbrella term for local groups that employed numerous methods.”The New York Vigilance Committee, founded in 1835, was typical: a small, interracial band of abolitionists who took open, legal actions to protect free African-Americans from being kidnapped and sold into slavery, while also covertly helping runaway slaves reach safety in upstate New York, New England and Canada.RelatedEric Foner’s detailing of the Underground Railroad pairs nicely with his 1988 book, “Reconstruction.”David Ruggles, a free black man who was the committee’s driving force for its first five years, gets a lively thumbnail sketch. His conviction that combating slavery required direct action — not necessarily nonviolent — would come to be shared by more abolitionists.During the 1840s, many Northern states passed laws prohibiting their public officials from participating in the recapture of slaves. Under the “freedom principle,” slaves brought by their owners to a state where slavery was illegal should automatically become free.During that decade, infuriated Southerners tended to overestimate the scope and power of the ad hoc “railroad” network that helped perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 runaway slaves — a pitiful percentage of the 4 million enslaved.But they accurately perceived that legal maneuvers and covert action combined to undermine what they saw as their sacred property rights.The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 changed all that. It overrode Northern personal liberty laws and enabled the federal government to force local authorities and citizens to assist in the recapture of escaped slaves. (Foner notes the irony inherent in this huge expansion of federal power to appease the nation’s loudest advocates of states’ rights.)If slaveholders thought it would cow abolitionists, they were mistaken.“The Fugitive Slave Law reinvigorated and radicalized the underground railroad,” Foner writes.Foner gets his detailed information about the workings of the Underground Railroad during this fraught period from two invaluable contemporary documents.The first is a “Record of Fugitives” compiled in 1855-56 by Sydney Howard Gay, white editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, who recounted the journeys of more than 200 runaways who passed through his Manhattan offices.The second is the journal of William Still, son of a fugitive slave and leader of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, which played a vital role because of southern Pennsylvania’s proximity to Delaware, Virginia and Maryland, sources of most fugitive slaves.Foner puts names and faces to activists less famous than Harriet Tubman (who makes a brief appearance) but more important to the functioning of the underground railroad.While Tubman rescued some 70 slaves, Jermain W. Loguen of Syracuse was credited with assisting 1,500 fugitives; Thomas Garrett, one of the many Quakers active in the Underground Railroad, helped more than 2,200 people cross the Delaware border to freedom.Perhaps most indispensable of all was Louis Napoleon, Gay’s right-hand man, who reportedly aided 3,000 escaping from bondage.Although illiterate, Napoleon was involved in several legal proceedings, including one challenging slaveholders’ right to transport their slaves through free states. When the attorney for Virginia sarcastically asked if the Louis Napoleon who launched that case was emperor of France, a lawyer on the other side replied, “A much better man.”Foner’s able, evocative portraits of men like Napoleon — or Henry Brown, who arrived in Philadelphia after a 24-hour trip by rail and steamboat hidden in a crate “even too small for a coffin” — add human drama to his cogent scholarly study.Intellectually probing and emotionally resonant, “Gateway to Freedom” reminds us that history can be as stirring as the most gripping fiction.Smith is a contributing editor of the American Scholar and author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, by Eric Foner (320 pages; W.W. Norton; $26.95)Read more here:

  • Joshua
    2018-12-01 12:05

    Though this book focuses narrowly on the efforts of the Underground Railroad in New York City, it frames it against the larger story of the national conflict over slavery.

  • Todd Stockslager
    2018-11-28 09:57

    Review Title: This train carried saints and sinners to the land of hope and dreams The Underground Railroad was credited by contemporaries with successfully directing thousands of fugitive slaves to freedom in the North (abolitionists) or illegally subverting federal and state laws to destroy a specific region and culture (southern slave owners). Both views were partially true but incomplete. Foner attempts to complete the views and counteract the legends that have grown up around this vital piece of American history. By first offering a definition of the term, Foner goes a long way towards providing the most important corrective. [The Underground Railroad was] an interlocking series of local networks, each of whose fortunes rose and fell over time, but which together helped a substantial number of fugitives reach safety in the free states and Canada.. . . The "underground railroad" should be understood not as a single entity but as an umbrella term for local groups that employed numerous methods to assist fugitives, some public and entirely legal, some flagrant violations of the law.Memoirs by participants and early histories tended to overstate both the unity and the organization of this path from and through slave territory towards safety in the free states and for many ultimately Canada. By detailed research into the available primary materials from all sources--northern and southern, black and white, political and financial, active participants and outside observers, organization leaders and daily "practical abolitionists"--Foner is able to demonstrate how tenuous yet tenacious the effort to aid the fugitive slaves would be over the 50 years leading up the rupture of the Union.Foner provides another corrective by focusing on the Underground Railroad leadership and actions in New York City and the stations to its south (primarily Philadelphia) and north (Boston, Albany, Syracuse, and Canada). The story of the effort in the Metropolitan corridor that lead to and through New York has been little told in histories up to this point, claims Foner, and given the city's close ties to the South because of its role as the business and banking center of the country, the efforts of those involved in the railroad were both important and difficult. In stripping away the myths and legends and relying strictly on the primary sources available, Foner is able to base his history on fact but is left with a problem in writing his history: given the sometimes illegal nature of the work, the small number of people engaged in it, their focus on action and not documentation, and the scattered local efforts that made up the whole, it is hard drive a single compelling and flowing narrative from the sources. The narrative becomes for much of the book a series of isolated anecdotes stitched together with statements from Foner hedged with qualifiers and counter statements. The result is corrective and historically accurate but not always compelling reading. The final corrective Foner provides in this history issue to show the relationships between the various abolitionist groups and the Underground Railroad movement. The relationships were not always smooth and close ones due to differences in political goals, preferred methods, funding and management approaches, and religious and moral motives. But for the most part, Foner shows, these differences were overcome or overlooked to support "practical abolition", a term favored by those involved in the daily operations of the Underground Railroad. In the end I found this history important but not compelling reading. While written in a narrative popular history style, and well documented like an academic history, it feels almost textbook-like in its execution. Textbooks are more often studied than enjoyed.

  • Ted Hunt
    2018-12-01 07:59

    The origins of this book is a story that is especially appealing to a teacher. In 2007, one of Eric Foner's Columbia U. undergrad students was doing research on a history paper in the Columbia Rare Books Room and came upon the journal of a man who had been essential in New York City's Underground Railroad. She told her teacher about it, he eventually investigated it, and found it so fascinating that he used it as the centerpiece of his latest book (for which he thanks her profusely in the "Acknowledgements" section). And it is a very interesting book about the Underground Railroad and the role that New York City (a city that was definitely ambivalent about slavery) played in it. My only complaint about the book is its subtitle: "The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad," because the book is based entirely on the recorded evidence that was at Foner's disposal, which means that the it is largely not about the Underground Railroad, but rather about New York City's anti-slavery institutions (and the author, one of the nation's great historians, does not write about anything where the historical evidence is "hidden"). The author acknowledges at the beginning of the book that much of the history of the Underground Railroad is, indeed, difficult to track down because its participants were violating the law (and thus did not keep meticulous records of their activities) and the runaways were often illiterate. Thus much of the book is not about the Underground Railroad per se, but about the various anti-slavery institutions in NYC that often competed with each other, and criticized each other, in a paradigm that the author places in Sigmund Freud's idea of "the narcissism of small differences." There were different organizations, different publications, different philosophies (violent or non-violent), even, perhaps, some racial issues at the center of these controversies. The main figure of the book, Sydney Howard Gay, for instance, had a big falling out with Frederick Douglass over a variety of issues.My big take-aways from the book are: 1. The Underground Railroad (at least on the East Coast) was not the lone runaway slave moving along dirt roads at night. It involved groups, often families, traveling together, often on ships up the coast and on railroads. 2. My home town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, does not (or did not back in the 1970's when I lived there) make a big enough deal about their central place on the Underground Railroad. 3. The reaction of both North and South to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, with both sections going to extremes to recapture, or prevent the recapture of slaves, made it seem that only disunion (and thus war) could have resolved the issue. Thus as much as I do in my classes to address the Fugitive Slave Act, I might need to do more, as the northern reaction to it was a very big reason that many southern states seceded (and these were the states in the deep South that lost the fewest number of runaway slaves).In short, this is another expertly researched and well written book by Eric Foner, whose only drawback is perhaps the title (or subtitle).

  • Edgar Raines
    2018-11-30 11:05

    The title of this book is misleading. It is not a history of the underground railroad nation-wide. Rather, it is a study of New York City's role in the "corridor of freedom" that stretched from the Upper South to Canada along the East Coast. New York City up until Eric Foner's book was the "black hole" of underground railroad studies. There was considerable opposition to abolitionists in the city and the conductors of the underground railroad tried to be discrete about their activities. The key operatives were Daniel Ruggles in the 1830s and early 1840s and Sydney Howard Gay in the late 1840s to the late 1850s. Gay in particular kept meticulous records which allows Foner to describe in detail how the underground railroad operated and the story of how some of the passengers made their escape to freedom. The orginal histories of the underground railroad, written by white abolitionists, emphasized their own roles and those of men like them. Beginning in the 1960s historians emphasized the self-emancipation by slaves and treated white participants in the network spiriting these people to freedom as bit players. Foner, following current historical trends, views the underground railroad as a cooperative venture in which blacks and whites were indispensable. Ruggles, for example, was black; Gay, in contrast, was white. In the process, Foner provides ample justification for his perspective.Foner is perhaps best know for his synthetic histories, such as _Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877_ and _The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery_ , subjects on which a vast and complex historiography existed well before Foner sat down to write. His mastery of historiography is in full view in _Gateway to Freedom_, but so is his skill as a researcher in obscure records and his ability to piece together a continuous narrative from scattered and incomplete evidence. This is an important book by one of the leading students of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

  • Jacob Lines
    2018-11-28 13:51

    Eric Foner is a very good historian, and his work on Reconstruction is the best I have read. So when I heard of this book, I had to jump to get a copy. This is a great book. It has a lot of new stories to tell because it is based on a source that hadn’t been used before – Sydney Howard Gay’s Record of Fugitives. Gay played a prominent role in the Underground Railroad in New York and kept a record of fugitives that he helped. This book tells the story of the Underground Railroad, mostly in New York, but also in Boston and Philadelphia and Southeast Pennsylvania. This is a remarkable story of a lot of good people risking things from their reputations all the way to their lives to help slaves escape. The great contribution of this book is that it shows how the system depended on the agency of all those involved – slaves, free blacks, white abolitionists, genteel fundraisers, etc. This was not just the work of a few magnanimous white folks, as some earlier accounts said. It was the work of heroes like Sidney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon, Harriet Tubman, Thomas Garrett, Albert Fountain, William Still, James Miller McKim, and countless others.One other fun fact that I did not know: The justly-vilified Fugitive Slave Act was used as a template for the Civil Rights Act of 1866. As Foner explains, the Act “drew on the Fugitive Slave Act’s enforcement mechanisms and civil and criminal penalties, and the way it superimposed federal power on state law in order to establish a national responsibility for securing constitutionally protected rights.” Now that is a beautiful turnabout!

  • Prima Seadiva
    2018-12-01 13:00

    For subject matter I'd give this book 5 stars but the execution brings it down to 3.5. The reader was good.Most people know about the Underground Railroad via the life and work of Harriet Tubman who is barely mentioned in this book. This book deals with other parts of the Railroad and its history, in particular New York and its relation to it both positive and negative. A lot of the history of its development was presented in a rather dry declaratory manner of dates and facts most of which I have already forgotten. On the other hand, when the author describes the trials and experiences of escaped slaves, men, women, entire families and their determination to live free then the book is very compelling.The description of the heinous politics and impact of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was well done. Also the internecine issues, including racism among people and groups, even those who were in favor of abolition was quite interesting. The stance of most slave owners was appalling. Very few freed their slaves. In some cases those who did had their heirs try to regain slaves freed. And any person of color who was free-whether born free or manumitted was still vulnerable to being kidnapped and sold into slavery.Overall it was a worthwhile read about an ugly part of American history that the effects of are still resonant today.

  • Kmkoppy
    2018-11-21 09:05

    Somewhat disappointed in this book. It focused mainly on New York. I expected more individual stories of escapes to freedom, but this was a historical depiction with dates, names, and numbers of slaves that escaped. It was extremely well researched, honest and full of facts. I listened to the author on public radio, and he was so interesting, that I ordered the book right away from Kindle. I recommend listening to his interviews instead of reading the book, unless you're really into facts, or you're doing research. It took away some of the mystery surrounding the whole idea of an "Underground Railway", because according to his book, there weren't tunnels and organized routes. There were a couple of main organizations which consisted of just a few people. It was mainly a time in history when men and women of black and white race worked together for the most part to assist slaves in their endeavors to become free. I learned a lot about the role the Quakers played, how funds were raised, well as funds the organizers received from other countries, how they kept records of escapes.

  • Candace
    2018-12-09 11:04

    I find it so fascinating how directly tied the phrase "underground railroad" is to aiding escaping slaves. If I were to attempt to describe a subway to someone by saying "underground railroad," I think it would be more confusing than helpful, even though that is a pretty accurate description, simply because of how entrenched this idea is, historically. So Foner's exploration of how this railroad wasn't that organized, wasn't that formal--more of a haphazard web of individuals willing to aid fugitive slaves get as far North as they needed to go was a great read. By the very unique nature of each person's journey and escape, the book is a little scattered, though Foner did focus primarily on the "stations" in and around New York City, which aided the organization and comprehensibility of the many, many stories he had to tell us.

  • Holly
    2018-12-14 14:52

    More about the politics of abolitionist and anti-slavery societies (not necessarily the same thing) than the stories of individual fugitive slaves or a mythical network of people assisting runaway and manumitted slaves in their escapes to Canada. (Was I really wanting to read a certain currently popular fictional treatment that made the railroad metaphor explicit? Not necessarily!) The ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 get a lot of attention, as does New York State (a previously under-researched zone). One can't find any fault with Foner, an esteemed historian, but I found the book pretty dry as an audiobook, and I often had trouble discerning the structure of the narrative (which feels important to me for audio in particular). Still, a worthwhile read.

  • Natasha
    2018-11-14 12:55

    This re-writes everything you thought you knew about the Underground Railroad. While the book does not necessarily go into the nitty-gritty of people escaping, it gives you a better understanding of what and how the underground railroad worked. There were accounts of whole cities being so fine with helping fugitive slaves, that people would be driving them around in carriages in broad daylight. It also turns out that most slaves did not escape by foot, walking to the North; most fugitive slaves seem to have been smuggled out by boat. It is an eye-opening book that seems to be based heavily on one abolitionist's records of how many slaves they helped escape, and the details this man wrote in his accounts. The writing was not very engaging at times, but it's still quite informative.

  • Sam Ulmschneider
    2018-12-09 12:06

    Fantastic individual stories of how the activist networks of earlier eras worked, splintered, bickered, were divided by race lines and politics, and yet still did important humanitarian work. My only real criticism is the lack of larger theoretical sophistication and historiography - it could at time feel more like a layman's book than an academic one, and tend towards feeling more like a series of stories about the movement than a serious analytic look at it overall. Still, a quick read and well worth it.

  • Nick Smith
    2018-11-17 10:17

    The scope of this book is very exactingly narrow. It presents mostly the history of The Underground Railroad in New York City. The research provides a fresh look at interesting details. This is my second book by Eric Foner. I am always satisfied by his work. Perhaps it would be more promising if it was a broader view of the entire organization.

  • Bruce Greene
    2018-11-19 07:09

    Another well researched piece of scholarship from one of the finest historians working today. This period of history and topic continue to fascinate and baffle students of the American experience. Foner helps clarify the picture and has made a major contribution about the people on all ends of the Underground Railroad. Loaded with case histories that could spawn a thousand other books.

  • Judy
    2018-11-24 07:55

    Excellent book. Describes in detail about Black people 'cutting sticks' (escaping) from slavery during the Fugitive slave act of the 19th century. Amazing and brave souls risked their lives.

  • Kris - My Novelesque Life
    2018-12-11 08:21

    4.5 stars - review to come.

  • Helen
    2018-11-24 12:00

    This is a readable volume on the Underground Railroad, mostly covering its operations between Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, New England, and Canada. The R.R. was an outgrowth of vigilance committees that were founded in Northern cities to assist fugitive slaves as well as help free blacks, including free black children, that might be kidnapped in the North and sold into slavery in the South. Many of the Vigilance Committees' efforts were public - such as filing writs of habeas corpus, supplying attorneys to plead at hearings of slaves, and holding fund-raising events, publishing magazines and newsletters. Other efforts were clandestine including the direct reception of fugitive slaves and their forwarding to points North. The networks were with the other Vigilance Committees mostly as well as contacts in the countryside, and they were effective because of widespread sympathy in the North to the plight of the slaves - especially in New England and Northern NYS, as well as the Southern portion of Penna. and Phila., especially among the Quakers. However, NYC was different in that NYC business benefited greatly from the cotton carrying trade; receiving shipments from ports on the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf, and trans-shipping them by steamer to England. NYC was not particularly anti-slavery, or anti-South, thus NYC was dangerous for blacks, free or fugitive slave. However, NYC did have several notable and fiery abolitionists, although the populace was not as anti-slavery as the populace in Upstate NY. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 seemed to extend the reach of slavery into the free states - and led to numerous incidents and confrontations up until the Civil War broke out, wherein the citizenry in the North would "over-rule" the efforts of commissioners and rescue blacks who were about to be returned to slavery. In the book, we also learn about Harriett Tubman, her fearless exploits helping slaves escape and the subsequent course of her life. She risked re-enslavement and her life in returning many times to the South to get slaves out. Some of the stories of her exploits are hair-rising - a combination of luck, grit, sang froid, is the only explanation as to how this fearless and determined freedom fighter succeeded, including improving new stratagems for escape on the spot. Somebody should make a movie of her life; the screenplay is ready-made, needs no "improvement" or enhancement. The life and influence of the great Frederick Douglass is also discussed, along with the activities and accomplishments of other abolitionists and UGRR "conductors." Many who escaped slavery returned South after the War to reunite with their families and start life anew. Unfortunately, because Reconstruction was mis-handled, once the Federal troops left, the subsequent decades were marked by the resurgence of racism in the South including the enactment of "Jim Crow" laws, racism also became widespread nationally although less so in the North; the suppression of the black vote, the decades-long impoverishment of the blacks, and the rise of the share-cropper system all marked the sad aftermath of slavery in the South. KKK terror led to the Great Migration of hundreds of thousands of blacks from the South to the North, although in the last decades of the 20th Century the migration has been reversed as many blacks have returned to the South now that voting, and educational and economic opportunities once again became possible for African Americans throughout the South after the "Jim Crow" laws were struck down. The respected historian who has authored this volume has drawn on records that were hidden during the slavery years, and only recently came to the attention of historians. Many UGRR records were destroyed at the time of the Civil War as possession of information about UGRR activities would have led to incarceration given that fugitive slaves were supposed to be returned by Northerners to the South, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Law. A couple of UGRR figures, however, retained the records, some hidden in out of the way places such as graveyards, and meticulously recorded details of slaves that their branch of the RR helped - records of the arrival, interview, and departure of slaves, sometimes with children, that had been forwarded North. Often, once trains were in place between Baltimore, New York, and Boston, slaves would take trains north. Other times, they might walk, or ride north on horseback. Occasionally they might use the owner's carriage for the trip north. Before the beginning of the Civil War, large groups were taking off together from Maryland. Some slaves walked and slept int the fields at night, with their clothes frozen to them in winter. Three quarters of the escaped slaves were male, and most were young. Some slaves walked great distances from the Deep South to the North. This volume mostly deals with slaves escaping from border States such as Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, into Pennsylvania and from there on to NY and Canada. Many details were recorded in the hidden ledger that was recently discovered. Other records corroborate the information; that is, records kept at the Vigilance Committee in Phila reference the records of escapes kept at the NY Vigilance Committee office. There are also records of telegraphs sent and received, which is how the NY Committee was apprised of arriving fugitive slaves, and on exactly what train or boat they would be arriving. There were several safe houses in Lower Manhattan and the offices of the Vigilance Committee (and its offshoots) were actually also "stations" of the UGRR. Sometimes, fugitive slaves might be spotted at the docks where they might jump ship and would be brought to the Vigilance Committee offices, thence supplied with money, food, clothes, and forwarded onto the Syracuse and from there on to Canada. Most NY blacks knew of the Vigilance Committee and its location and could direct newly-arrived slaves to the Vigilance Committee offices for assistance/forwarding north. The ledgers recorded the reasons for the escapes - many times the abuse was described in detail, physical abuse, beating, or being forced to watch a family member get beaten. Other times a slave knew he was about to be sold the next day and would run. This books brings to vivid life the figures who were prominent workers in the UGRR, which was inter-racial/integrated although some committees were mostly African American. Also, the post-war lives of some of the figures are given, which is also interesting. Some went on to become authors and wrote accounts of their experiences working for the UGRR. I recommend this book to anyone interested in this sad chapter in our nation's history. The book begins with an account of the amazing escape in 1838 of Frederick Douglass, who went on to become "the 19th century's most celebrated black American" as the book says. He was helped by the UGRR (Committee of Vigilance) leaving NY for much safer New England. What follows in the book is exploit after exploit, the stories of many other slaves who left, how they were helped to a new life either in New England, Northern New York State, or Canada, as well as descriptions of the day-to-day organizational efforts of the Vigilance Committees, including their in-fighting. The book brings to life the struggles in the courtroom, as unjust returns to slavery were fought, very often by the anti-slavery attorney grandson of - John Jay. The Fugitive Slave Law was one of the key irritants in the North, and one of the reasons anti-slavery Northerners supported the War, since they felt the Law extended the reach of an immoral system into the free States by compelling citizens of Northern states to cooperate in an immoral system they wanted no part of, by mandating the cooperation of Northern citizens in the return of fugitive slaves to the South. Of course, this Federal law was routinely flouted in the North. In this book, you will find out in detail exactly how this law worked, how commissioners were appointed, and why it was so loathed in the North. Basically, all Northerners were expected to turn in fugitive slaves to the police so they could be returned to their owners. This was repugnant to the many Northerners who refused to accept that man could be treated as property. The Fugitive Slave Law was therefore largely flouted; many times Northerners would rescue captured slaves on the street and spirit them away from the police, but on occasion Federal marshals actually needed to mass maybe ten deep to keep angry Northern crowds away from a fugitive slave that was being put back on a South-bound boat. These heart-rending scenes once played out on the streets of Northern cities. Sometimes slaves might escape again after they were recaptured but it was much more difficult to escape from the Deep South (sold down the river - many times this was the "punishment" meted out to an escaped slave) most of the escaped slaves came from border States. This is a riveting book about a chapter of the Nation's history, which, as distressing as it is to read about, should never be forgotten.

  • Whitney
    2018-11-16 08:58

    I have such a brain crush on Eric Foner! He is the author of my favorite US History textbook to teach from. My favorite parts of this book were the stories about the people involved in running the Underground Railroad and the people who escaped. I admit to skimming some of the parts about the many internal conflicts within the various anti-slavery societies. There is also a great deal of information about the many court cases and legal attempts to prevent slaves and free blacks from being kidnapped and sent south. That was largely unknown to me and not only was it fascinating but it made it clear how this country's legal system has been used to oppress people of color since the very founding of the country. In fact, I kept finding myself drawing parallels between the events of the 1840s and 1850s and today's Black Lives Matter movement, mass incarceration, and police brutality against people of color. Although the mechanisms are different, the same processes of white supremacy and institutionalized racism are at work. I'm sure this is not news to people of color, but as a white woman, I am still unlearning what I was taught to be believe about the fairness of the US justice system. I was also struck by the way African Americans have repeatedly put their faith in the courts and worked tirelessly to have their rights recognized even though the system they were working within was inherently stacked against them. Finally, I really appreciated the way people of color are at the center of this story and their agency is paramount.

  • Kevin
    2018-12-01 09:10

    Ho Hum. An, at times, interesting read, though the title is misleading as the book's focus is primarily about the Underground Railroad as it relates to New York state. And yet, one never gets the feeling that you're reading about the Underground Railroad. Foner spends a good deal of time discussing the differences between the various anti-slavery and abolitionist groups as well as addressing the various laws and legal ramifications of each state's choice to obey or not obey the Fugitive Slave law. He does detail the problems that abolitionist groups faced, such as the difficulty in acquiring funds, but this is just the bureaucracy, the administrative BS, that Foner describes. Not until the reader gets to chapter seven (of eight) does the book turn to fugitive slave accounts but due to lack of available records even these stories are surface level at best.This is not a bad book but if one wants to know more than the difficulties a slave faced when he or she reached New York, or that (surprise, surprise!) people didn't agree on how slaves should be freed, then the reader will be sadly disappointed.

  • Ai Miller
    2018-12-05 13:54

    This book was an interesting look into the history of the Underground Railroad in New England. I specify because anything not connected directly to New York City is not mentioned--which makes sense, given the sources Foner was working with. He does a careful job of making sure not just to highlight white participants, and really did his work in trying to follow Black participants who may not have otherwise been highlighted. The story itself moves chronologically and also traces debates among abolitionist factions. I'm not personally super familiar with the historiography around the Underground Railroad, so I can't speak to the interventions (if any) Foner is making in this book--if anything, he relies super heavily on that historiography to make his argument. Which is fine, it's an interesting enough story on its own, but I don't know that I would have read it if it wasn't gifted to me, as much as I love Foner's other work. Really, I just don't feel one way or another about this book? It wasn't bad, it just wasn't great, which is totally cool!

  • Steve Majerus-Collins
    2018-11-27 10:11

    Eric Foner is a solid historian admired by all of us who care about such things. He's offered valuable insights into America's past and enhanced our understanding of the United States. But let's face it, this book is a paltry offering, thin on details and a bit of a hash as an account of the Underground Railroad.I'm no expert on the subject, but I know enough to recognize that trying to come up with a good history of what happened in secret so long ago is bound to be a perilous foray into a difficult area. Yet there's a lot that Foner glosses over, ignores or simply fails to draw out wisely and well. He found one gold mine -- contemporary notes by a key conductor on the railroad -- but didn't even do much with that.I hoped for a vivid and compelling look into one of the more interesting moments of American ingenuity, however lacking it may have been compared to the overall problem of slavery. Instead, Foner delivered a mere trifle. Had it been someone else, I might shrug it off and take away what was valuable. But from him, honestly, I expected better.