Book Review: Gateway To Freedom (1)

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

This is a good book, but not one that lives up to its title in the way that the author would wish. This is a book about the Underground Railroad, and a solid one, but I was left wanting more about it. It appears that the author wants to take advantage of insights coming from the primary documentation that has largely been ignored from those who participated in the Underground Railroad, but the result of all of this is a strange focus too much on Philadelphia and New York to the exclusion of others. And this focus manages to obscure the workings of the Underground Railroad in other, less familiar places, even as it brings to the forefront the unpleasant and embarrassing personal and political issues that sometimes hampered the unity and effectiveness of the Underground Railroad. Any sort of social movement that depends on the unity and cohesiveness of impractical anarchistic radicals is going to be more than a little bit dodgy and that is certainly the case here. Some of these people would have been better served to have lived with more sense and less rancor, but had that been the case they would not have been what they were, for better and especially for worse.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into eight chapters that help reveal the particular focus of the author in traveling over surprisingly well-worn ground. The book begins with a list of maps and illustrations. After that the author talks about the author’s desire to rethink the underground railroad (1). This is followed b a discussion of slavery and freedom in New York (2), demonstrating the author’s focus on that particularly iniquitous city. This is followed by a discussion of the origins of the Underground Railroad in the New York Vigilance Committee (3), again showing the bias of the author in focusing attention on New York instead of other places. After that the author talks about the patchwork system of the Underground Railroad in the 1840’s, where the author does show himself to be at least aware of antislavery efforts in other places, even if it does not quite balance out the author’s strange myopic look at Manhattan (4). After that comes a chapter on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the crisis it led to in the black community, leading many to flee into Canada (5). After that comes a look at the metropolitan corridor between Philadelphia and New York in the 1850’s (6), which is followed by a chapter on accounts of fleeing slavery from fugitive slaves themselves. Finally, the book ends with the end of the underground railroad in the Civil War and in the end of slavery (8), after which there are acknowledgements, notes, and an index.

In writing about the underground railroad, one has to be aware of the fact that one is writing about loosely organized groups that occasionally collaborated with others but also had plenty of rivalries and mistrust as well. In reading a book like this it is hard to avoid thinking of how good this book could have been had it been written with a greater sense of balance. Instead of the availability bias that leads the author to follow the most plentiful sources and allow them the most press rather than seeking more sources to balance things out, this book would have been much better had it focused more attention on those parts of the Underground Railroad that were close to the source of escaped slaves, as it would have helped to uncover the balance between the initiative of the slave and the availability of help that helped determine the success of efforts of fugitive slaves to escape from bondage into freedom. This book finds itself in the strange place of seeking to argue for the primacy of self-emancipation efforts of the slaves even as it sources demonstrate the key importance of assistance from a variety of sources. This tension between the ideology of the author and the weight of the evidence the author relies upon does make for an interesting work.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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