The Early Stages of the Underground Railroad in the Middle Atlantic States, 1775–93

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:50 AM
Salon C (Hilton Atlanta)
Graham R. Hodges, Colgate University
David Blight has described the Underground Railroad, (UGRR) as America’s most popular historical contact with the history of slavery. Sparked by Eric Foner’s popular new book, Gateway to Freedom: the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, scholars are now reinvestigating the UGRR on local and national levels. The National Park Service describes the UGRR broadly as an effort—sometimes spontaneous, sometimes highly organized—to assist persons held in bondage in North America to escape from slavery.”

This paper intends to confront several theoretical problems affecting current study of the UGRR within the chronology of the onset of the American Revolution in 1775 and passage of the first national Fugitive Slave in 1793 and the geographic context of the debate over slavery and abolition in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. Such focus shows the extent of UGRR-type activities long before the antebellum period. Beyond correcting an overly tight chronology, discussion of these years has additional benefits. Current historical discussion of the UGRR emphasizes its pacifist qualities. Including wartime British invitations to enslaved Americans to join forces in exchange for a promised freedom places UGRR-type actions within military conflict among antagonistic nationalities and hugely expands the numbers gaining freedom by tens of thousands of people. Americans and British officers argued heatedly about such flight, debates that flowed into American Constitution making in 1787. By focusing on the sizable number of self-emancipated blacks in the revolutionary and early national Middle Atlantic states, this paper finally will argue for the forcible quality of black escape shaping decisions leading to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and anticipating later political crises over the UGRR. Finally, the paper will demonstrate how the UGRR fits into overall American history, rather than serving as a curious side issue, as is now the case.