Audiobook Review: Gateway To Freedom

Gateway To Freedom:  The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad, by Eric Foner, read by JD Jackson

If a reader thinks that he or she is going to be reading a balanced and complete account of the activities of the Underground Railroad with this book, the reader will be sorely disappointed.  That does not mean that the book is by any means a waste, only that it does not meet the lofty expectations of its title.  This is the sort of book that the reader will enjoy if they want to hear about the internecine squabbles of various groups of abolitionists, with racial and political drama demonstrating the narcissism of small differences, discussions of endless money difficulties and the racist political climate of New York City, with far less information provided about the activities in upstate New York, New England, the Philadelphia area, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Norfolk, and almost nothing about any parts of the Underground Railroad west of the Appalachians.  This book is essentially a history of the Underground Railroad by people who think the Big Apple is the center of the world and care almost nothing for the rest of the United States, notwithstanding the fact that Cincinnati, a city that is not even mentioned as important in the Underground Railroad, is the place where the national museum of the UGRR is located.

The contents of this book are both far more detailed than most readers will be familiar with and far narrower in scope than many readers are likely to expect.  Taking a generally chronological approach to the workings of fugitive slave networks, the book is a classic “hidden history” in that it gets a great deal of mileage out of sources that are not well known, in particular, the obscure diaries of abolitionists involved in the major urban centers of the Eastern seaboard, including radical Quakers, pacifist supporters of Henry Lloyd Garrison, moderately corrupt ship captains, and passionate idealists and activists.  Like most hidden or secret histories, this book has a decidedly leftist or hipster bent [1].  Abraham Lincoln, for example, is frequently mentioned and is considered to be way too “moderate” or “conservative” for the idealists and occasional charlatans among the abolitionist clique.  This is a book about a slightly too incestuous network of activists involved in lawbreaking on behalf of an exploited group of people, rejoicing in acts of violence, subterfuge, and hostility to an admittedly unjust law [2].  If reading about this sort of material, focusing on a few people involved in endless squabbles and turf battles while grudgingly cooperating on behalf of runaway slaves, this book might be of interest.

So, what is one to make of this book.  For one, the book is a myopic work on people who were themselves rather myopic in their approach.  Turf battles over ideological purity of the kind that one is likely to see among supporters of Bernie Sanders or the Occupy movement demonstrated the total impracticality of their approach.  The book ends on a somewhat melancholy note for the author as the freedom of the slaves through the efforts of Union troops led by a savvy moderate Republican politician who had more political skills in his pinkie than the entire cadre of abolitionists discussed here, with the possible exception of Frederick Douglass, made the Underground Railroad somewhat obsolete as there were no longer any Southern masters willing to go to the Union in search of their runaway slaves.  The author does at least focus on the initiative shown by the runaway slaves themselves, who are by far the most sympathetic figures here, along with people like the aged and infirm but dutiful Louis Napoleon, a far greater man than the French emperor of the same name, who personally conveyed many fugitive slaves from New York to points beyond, and this is a welcome relief from paternalistic accounts that viewed the fugitive slaves as somewhat passive and dependent.  The book is a mixed bag, with fascinating stories of slave escapes and derring-do, including the work of Harriet Tubman, mixed with tedious discussions of corrupt institutional politics and tiresome squabbles over issues of feminism and the question of priorities within the larger body of antislavery radicals.  In short, the people in this book sound a lot like our lot of wicked and corrupt and holier-than-thou political radicals, and that is not an enjoyable aspect of relevance for this mediocre book whose claims are far beyond the book’s circumscribed and narrowly focused accomplishments.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Audiobook Review: Gateway To Freedom

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Slave No More | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Hidden Figures | Edge Induced Cohesion

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