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'Gateway To Freedom': Heroes, Danger And Loss On The Underground Railroad

While writing his new book, historian Eric Foner relied on a recently discovered record of slaves' escapes. He says the documents paint a "revealing picture" of life on the Underground Railroad.

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Transcript

January 19, 2015

Guest: Eric Foner

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Martin Luther King Day, we're going to talk about an American freedom movement that precedes the Civil Rights movement - the Underground Railroad, which helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom. My guest, historian Eric Foner, is the author of the new book "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad." It's based in part on a document few scholars were aware of until recently - a record of fugitive slaves that was written by Sydney Howard Gay who was a key Underground Railroad operative from the mid-1840s until the eve of the Civil War. Gay also was the editor of the weekly newspaper The National Anti-Slavery Standard. Foner's book focuses on the city that Gay lived and worked in, New York, which Foner says was a crucial weigh station in the Northeast Corridor through which fugitive slaves made their way from the upper South through Philadelphia and onto upstate New York, New England and Canada.

Foner is a professor of history at Columbia and has written several books about the Civil War era. He's won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize. An earlier book he wrote, "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution," has just been published with a new introduction.

Eric Foner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the importance of Sydney Howard Gay's records, which is such an important part of your interpretation now of what happened in the Underground Railroad.

ERIC FONER: Well, the importance of this - what he called the record of fugitives, which is a little book he kept in 1855 and 1856 recording the experiences of fugitive slaves who passed through New York City in those two years - the importance is that it's really a very, very rare and unusual firsthand account from that time itself of these fugitive slaves. And, you know, he was a journalist, so he interviewed them, and he got - he wrote down a lot of information about who they were, where they came from, who their owners were, how they escaped, who helped them on their way to the North, then what he did, who assisted them in New York City, where he sent them to - 'cause he's sort of a pivotal figure in helping fugitive slaves who pass through New York get to the North in Canada. So it gives you a firsthand account of the operations of one important piece of the Underground Railroad, you know, right at the time.

It's - a lot of information we have about the Underground Railroad is really memoirs from a long time after the Civil War. And, you know, as you know, people's memory is sometimes a little faulty, sometimes a little exaggerated, so here we have documents right from the moment when these things are happening, and it's a very unusual and revealing, you know, picture of the world of these fugitive slaves and the people who assisted them.

GROSS: Gay's records reveal some of the extraordinary means that slaves used to achieve their freedom. Give us an example.

FONER: Well, you know, we tend to think of fugitive slaves - and this often happened of course - you know, individually running away, hiding in the woods at night or hiding in the woods during the day, I should say, and then traveling at night. But Gay's records indicate that certainly by the 1850s, when the transportation system was well-matured, many of these fugitives escaped in groups, not just lone individuals. They were groups. They were family groups. They were groups of just random people who came together to escape. And they escaped it using every mode of transportation you can imagine. They stole carriages - horse-drawn carriages - from their owners. They went out on boats into Chesapeake Bay and tried to - you know, little canoes kind of things and tried to go North. And large numbers of them came either on boat from Maryland or Virginia, places like that. They stowed away on boats which were heading North, often assisted by black crew members because, you know, working on boats was one of the few occupations available to free blacks at that time - or by train, actually. The railroad network was pretty complete by this point. And quite a few of these fugitives actually managed to escape by train, which of course is a lot quicker than going through the woods. So you have an amazing number of, you know, kind of instances of just resourcefulness of fugitive slaves. And many of them sort of used different methods. They would run away from a plantation. They would go in the woods for maybe 50 miles, and then they would somehow get on a boat or a train. So some of them used a lot of different methods. But, you know, it really does - the records that he kept give a real sense of the ingenuity of many of these fugitives in figuring out different ways to get away from the South.

GROSS: One of the most celebrated figures in the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, and she twice brought fugitive slaves through Gay's office in New York City. And one of the stories that he records was that she went to Maryland hoping to bring out her sister in 1856, but her sister wasn't ready. So Tubman didn't just turn back, she brought out other people instead. Who did she end up bringing out?

FONER: Well, she - you know, Tubman is a very unusual and unique figure. She went back a number of times. She escaped herself around 1850, and she went back a number of times - as is, you know, pretty well-known now - to bring out other slaves, both relatives and others, from Maryland where she originated. There were other fugitives - and this is mentioned in the book - who went back maybe once to try to get out their wife or children or something like that, but Tubman did this several times. And over the course of the 1850s, it's estimated that she led 70 to 80 people to freedom.

Now, in this particular instance that you mention - and Gay records this in his record of fugitives - her sister wasn't ready. She was - you know, sometimes people have been promised their freedom in the future. Sometimes people were just nervous that they didn't - you know, it was dangerous to run away, and if you were captured, as many people were, trying to do this, you could be pretty severely punished. But, as you say, Tubman then turns to other slaves in the vicinity and, you know, and brings them out. She was a very resourceful and courageous person - terribly courageous - because if she had been captured, she certainly would have faced a very drastic punishment. But she wasn't willing to let her trip back into the heart of Maryland sort of go to waste. And she brought back another group, which included a couple of brothers, I think, and a woman who joined them later on.

So, you know, this record, again, among other things, indicates, you know, how a person like Harriet Tubman actually operated and then how she got these people from Maryland up into Pennsylvania, New York and up to the North in Canada.

GROSS: She brought out on this trip, as you describe it in the book, two brothers. Both were married, and they left behind their wives and a total of seven children. And the woman who they brought with them on the way, who was an escaped slave, her owner had presented her 4-year-old son as a gift to a nephew who then left with the child to Missouri. But she left behind a husband and their 17-year-old daughter and four grandchildren. Did people - did escaped slaves typically leave behind members of their family? There must've been such tough choices to make.

FONER: This was a terrible situation for people, obviously. Slavery itself was a terrible situation, clearly. But, yes, everybody left somebody behind, whether it was a child, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, etc. As I said before, occasionally you did have family groups managing to escape together. But, obviously, escaping with a young child would be a rather difficult thing. It would make it, you know, much more likely you'd be captured. So this record and other documents of the time are full of rather, you know, heartbreaking stories of people who got out and then had to figure out, well, is there any way I can get some of my relatives, even my husband, my wife, my children out? And, you know, that was not very easy most of the time. Most of them couldn't really do that. A few did.

There were stories in here of, as I said, people who went back or people who even hired someone to try to get a relative out of slavery. But, you know, so most of the slaves who escaped and who are mentioned in this record are young men - men in their 20s, basically, who often - you know, many of them did have wives and children, but many of them didn't. Many of them were unattached in that sense, although they left parents behind. So maybe three-quarters were men, maybe a quarter were women. It was a much more wrenching decision maybe for a mother to worry or, you know, to think about leaving and not being able to take a child with her. So, you know, this is part of the human tragedy of slavery, that even the act of escaping put people in an almost, you know, insoluble kind of dilemma.

GROSS: So, Sydney Howard Gay, whose records you got access to for your book, he recorded the reasons why the fugitive slaves he came in contact to had fled. Physical abuse was the most common reason. The second-most common reason was the threat of sale.

FONER: Right. He asked them - as I said, he's a journalist, and he's interviewing these people, which is one of the reasons this is such a unique document because you get, through Gay, the voice of these fugitive slaves in the act of escaping itself. Physical abuse - yes, they all complained about being mistreated, being whipped, being, you know, abused in one way or another, often in very graphic details they give. But, then, fear of sale - you know, most of these fugitives came from the upper South. The largest number came from Maryland, Delaware, then you go back down a little further, maybe Washington, D.C., Virginia. You know, for obvious reasons, if you look at a map, it was a lot easier to escape from Delaware and Maryland than from Mississippi, you know? Maryland borders on several free states, and that's where most of these fugitives came from. So they didn't want to be sold to the Deep South, you know? It's not that slavery in the upper South was such a picnic, but it was widely believed among slaves, for good reason, that down in the lower South, in the Cotton Kingdom, conditions were much more brutal, much more difficult. And also, of course, being sold would separate you from your family and, you know, people you knew in the whole world.

So many of these fugitive slaves said it was upon hearing that they were going to be sold that they ran away, or having another member of their family sold and then fearing that would happen to them, they ran away. So that was a very serious, you know, problem for slaves in the upper South. And the fear of sale did trigger a lot of these decisions to run away.

GROSS: And the thought of being placed on the auction block must have been just, like, so horrifying.

FONER: Well, it was, of course, horrifying, and it was also humiliating in the sense that people on the auction block often were stripped naked or virtually naked. They were examined in the most intimate ways. It was, you know - the auction block was a place where your status as a slave - you might almost say - was revealed most dramatically and most publicly. You know, there would be many people watching you and looking at you if you were brought to a - you know, a slave auction house.

Now, some people were sold individually to other people or to slave traders who would just bring them down to the deeper South, and then they would be exhibited there. But in every way it was, obviously, in every possible way, a completely humiliating and unpleasant experience.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Foner. He is a professor of history at Columbia University. His new book is called "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Foner. He's a historian, a history professor at Columbia University and author of the new book "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad." Let's talk about some of the typical dangers that fugitive slaves faced on their way to freedom. Who was likely to be looking for you? Would the owners, like, typically hire people to look for you, notify the police?

FONER: You know, the whole South was a kind of an armed camp. There were obviously police forces around. There were slave patrols. These were people whose job it was to watch out on the roads for slaves who were off their farms or plantations for any reason. I mean, you know, they were people who might just be going secretly to visit a loved one at a different plantation, and that was, of course, against the law, also, without the permission of the owner.

But so - and then there was the general - you might say - status of slaves under the law was that every white person was supposed to keep their eyes open for slaves who were violating the law in some way. You could be stopped by any white person and asked to show your papers. In other words, if a slave was on the road in some way, they had to have either free papers to prove they were a free person or some kind of pass from their owner giving them permission to go to a town or to visit another plantation or something like that. And any white person could just stop you and say, let me see your pass. Let me see your papers.

You know, Frederick Douglass, who escaped from Maryland before the Underground Railroad was really operative in a strong way in 1838, I think - you know, he wrote in his autobiography about the fear that he felt. Every white person might be after him. Every place he came to a bridge or a road or a - you know, a turning point, there might be somebody searching for him. You know, he was petrified. Even though he escaped by train and it only took him a day to get up to New York City, the whole way he was petrified of being found.

Then owners would - yes, there were professional slave catchers, some of whom who went into the North. You know, I give stories of people who were seized in Philadelphia or New York City, sometimes without any legal process at all, and just grabbed and taken to the South back to slavery. The owners put ads in newspapers. You know, I reproduce in the book some of the advertisements for fugitive slaves who are mentioned in Gay's manuscript, "Record Of Fugitives," from the Baltimore Sun or other newspapers - the Washington newspapers.

GROSS: I'm going to stop you there because I want you to read one.

FONER: Yeah. Well, this is an advertisement from the Baltimore Sun for a woman and her two children who escaped from Washington, D.C., and later turn up in Sydney Howard Gay's "Record Of Fugitives." But this is typical of the fugitive slave ads that are found in every Southern newspaper. So this begins (reading) $100 reward, ran away from the subscriber - that's the person who's putting the ad - (reading) on Saturday the 30 of August, 1856, a Negro woman named Emeline Chaplin, aged about 26 years, 5-feet-4-inches high, rather slender, quite dark-colored, speaks quick and short when spoken to and stammers some - with two children - the eldest, a female, about 2 years and 4 months, the same color of the mother - the other, a male, about 6 or 7 months old, quite bright-colored.

And then the owner, Mrs. Emily Thompson, says she will give a reward of $50 if taken within the limits of the District of Columbia. In either - or $100 - $100 generally, $50 if they're caught right in the District of Columbia just after they escaped. Now, what's interesting about these fugitive slave ads...

GROSS: Can I just add one more thing? And then she writes, (reading) in either case, to be secured in jail or brought home to me so that I can get them again.

FONER: Right - so I can get them. That's actually language that's typical of many fugitive slave ads - saying I want to get them. Now, you know, $100 reward is a lot of money back then. An average working man - let's say in New York City - a working-class person may have earned about $250 a year in New York City at this time. Now, on the other hand, these slaves were worth a lot more than $100 on the market. So - but this is an unusual ad - very unusual ad in that it does mention these two very young children - 2 years and 4 months, 6 or 7 months old. Obviously, running away with two young children was not very easy. But Emeline Chaplin did manage to get up - with the help of other people - to get up to New York City and then on further North thanks to Sydney Howard Gay's assistance. So, you know, it shows you the variety of types of people who did manage to escape from slavery.

GROSS: You read documents in this that you'd never seen before - the record of fugitive slaves that was kept by the journalist Sydney Howard Gay. And it's an incredible record that explains why slaves, you know - based on histories and based on his first-person meetings with fugitive slaves, it explains why they left, how they fled, how they succeeded in escaping. What are some of the things that you learned in researching this new book that gave you a new understanding of how the Underground Railroad operated?

FONER: Well, Gay's record - and then supplemented by many other sources that I eventually located - does give you a very good picture of the Underground Railroad. You know, it was not - sometimes we think of it as kind of a highly organized operation with set routes, you know, and stations where people would just go from one to the other, maybe secret passwords.

It wasn't nearly as organized as that. I would say it's better described as a series of local networks. I'm talking about the Eastern Underground Railroad. There's a whole story further West, in Ohio, etc., that isn't in my book. But in what I call the Metropolitan corridor of the East, from places like Norfolk, Virginia, up to Washington, Baltimore, in places in Delaware and then on to Philadelphia, New York and further North, there were local groups, local individuals who helped fugitive slaves. They were in communication with each other. Their efforts rose and fell. Sometimes these operations were very efficient. Sometimes they kind of almost went out of existence. The Philadelphia one basically lapsed for about seven or eight years until coming back into existence in the 1850s.

So one should not think of it as a - you know, as I said, highly organized system, but there were small numbers. What's amazed me was how few people really can accomplish a great deal. In New York City, I don't think more than a dozen people at any one time were actively engaged in assisting fugitive slaves. But, nonetheless, they did it very effectively, and they did, by the 1840s or '50s, have contact with people further North, either up in Boston or in Syracuse, Albany and then eventually in Canada.

So, you know, I developed a great deal of respect for what a small number of people can do in very difficult circumstances - after all, they are violating federal law and state law by helping fugitive slaves - what they can do to help a significant number of people. One shouldn't think of, you know, hundreds of thousands of slaves escaping. It wasn't like that. There's no exact number that you can point to. But, you know, in New York City, let's say, probably about a hundred a year passed through New York City in the 20 to 30 years before the Civil War. You know, that adds up to a significant number of people, but there were 4 million slaves in 1860. So it's not like they're undermining the system of slavery in terms of, you know, numbers of escapes. But, nonetheless, it was still a very important mechanism for a significant number of people to actually gain their freedom.

GROSS: Eric Foner will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with historian Eric Foner, author of the new book "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad." It's about how the Underground Railroad helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom. And it explains the laws that upheld the right of slave owners to reclaim and re-enslave those who managed to cross into the North. Foner focuses on the Northeast Corridor, where fugitive slaves made their way from the upper South through Philadelphia and onto upstate New York, New England and Canada.

New York City played an important role in the Underground Railroad. It was a hub for it. At the same time, New York City, as you describe it, was a center for the kidnapping of not only escaped slaves, but of free men, you know, free men and women and children.

FONER: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah, so maybe you could describe a little how kidnapping flourished in New York. And I should say that one of the stories of that kind of kidnapping was told in Solomon Northup's memoir "12 Years A Slave"...

FONER: Right.

GROSS: ...Which was adapted into the film of the same name.

FONER: Well, thanks to that film from last year, many people are now aware of something that probably most weren't, that even after slavery was abolished in New York State - and it lingered on until 1827 - free black people in New York were not definitely secure. There were these bands of kidnappers - Solomon Northup was kidnapped in the 1840s - but even before that, in New York City, you had basically gangs which would - criminal gangs - which would nab a black person on the street, grab them, take them to a boat and ship them to the South for sale. Often children - Northup was an adult when he was kidnapped, but generally it was children just grabbed off the street. You send your kid to the grocery store to get a quart of milk or whatever it would be back then, and they just disappear. And that's the, you know, you never see them again.

And the New York Vigilance Committee, which is really the first organized kind of operation to help fugitive slaves, which is founded in the mid-1830s in New York, actually originates in order to stop kidnapping, in order to publicize the efforts of these gangs, in order to warn black people about how to be safe, in order to go to court to try to stop the kidnapping of black people. And - but New York was a dangerous place for free African-Americans. These were not fugitive slaves. These were not people who had violated any law. And yet, the danger of being just picked up and sold into slavery really did exist.

GROSS: How were the courts used to try to protect black men, women and children against kidnapping?

FONER: Well, one of the points I make in this book, which I think is important in thinking about the Underground Railroad, is that these local networks operated both publicly and secretly at the same time, and they operated both legally and extra-legally. In other words, we tend to think of it, oh, it's all secret. They're helping fugitive slaves, which is true. But they are often very public. When you go to court, that's a public thing obviously. And the vigilance committee and its lawyers went to court to try to stop this kidnapping.

Now, often kidnapping was done under the guise of fugitive slave laws. In other words, a black person would be picked up on the street, brought to a local judge and somebody would say, well, this guy is my fugitive and he escaped, you know, from Maryland five years ago. And in those cases, very often, the black person didn't even have the right to testify on his own behalf. And they were unscrupulous city officials who really just made a business of saying, OK, you're remanded back to the South, even when the evidence was nonexistent to get the person. So the vigilance committee hired lawyers to go and actually defend these people and to expose the, you know, operations of these city officials who were in cahoots with kidnapping groups.

And they did succeed by the 1840s, I think, in significantly reducing the number of people kidnapped in New York City. In other words, they brought attention to it. They shined public light on it. They got city officials and newspapers to publicize it. And the incidents of kidnapping, I think, diminishes very rapidly from the 1840s onward. But in the 1820s and '30s, it is a big, big problem for black citizens of New York City.

GROSS: Until the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required officials in the North and individuals in the North to turn in fugitive slaves, there were a lot of regional laws of different strengths that, you know, regulated what to do about fugitive slaves. What were some of those laws?

FONER: Well, Terry, the first thing to remember of course is that the Constitution itself has a fugitive slave clause which says that - it doesn't mention the word slave or slavery. That word isn't in the original Constitution. But it says these people who escape who are held to labor have to be returned. The problem is that's pretty vague. It doesn't say who is responsible. Is it the states? Is it the federal government? What kind of procedures can be used?

There was a national law passed in 1793 - right at the beginning of the Republic - but even that was pretty vague. And so in the early 19th century, yes, every state in the North had a law saying that, yes, fugitive slaves could be arrested and sent back to the South. This was a constitutional obligation. But they also included many protections against kidnapping and, you know, whether the slave - the accused slave could have a trial by jury or things like that. And Southerners found it harder and harder to use the legal processes to retrieve fugitive slaves.

By the 1840s, many Northern states are passing what they call personal liberty laws saying that local sheriffs can't participate in the apprehension of fugitive slaves, local judges can't issue orders about it. So all this leads up to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which is a powerful federal law. It makes it a federal obligation. It overrides these laws of the states. And it says, OK, federal commissioners, federal marshals will take responsibility for seizing and adjudicating the cases of fugitive slaves. It also says that any citizen can be deputized to, you know, to help apprehend a fugitive slave. And if you don't want to do that, if a marshal comes, says, hey, there's a fugitive slave down there, and you are now a member of my posse, and you say, you know, I don't really want to do that, you're committing a federal crime. And officials can be indicted in federal court for not assisting with fugitive slaves.

So this - the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 federalizes the whole process, makes it much more efficient. There were many, many fugitive slaves sent back to the South from numerous parts of the North in the 1850s under the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law. But, of course, it also arouses tremendous opposition in the North because this is one of - you might say - one of the most flagrant violation of state rights and local judicial processes in the whole history of the United States up to the Civil War. One of the ironies here, of course, is that the South, which often claims to believe in states' rights, is now demanding a law which abrogates the rights of the Northern states when it comes to the question of dealing with fugitive slaves.

GROSS: One of the ways - one of the most important ways that the Fugitive Slave Act affected free black people in the North was that they became more vulnerable with this new law. And many black people fled to Canada where they could find some safety.

FONER: Absolutely. I mean, New York City or many Northern cities saw an exodus of African-Americans - free people - you know, or fugitive slaves. One of the things about the Fugitive Slave Law - it was retroactive. In other words, someone could have escaped in 1835 and been living peacefully in New York City with a wife, children, working at a job. And suddenly in 1850, they're now vulnerable, really, to being captured and sent back to the South. And then, of course, the way the law operates with the accused person not having the right to testify on his own behalf, it was pretty easy for free people to be, you know, just sort of picked up in this system.

One of the very first instances indicates this. A fugitive was seized in Pennsylvania in late 1850, was brought before a federal commissioner, remanded back to a owner in Maryland. And when he got there, the owner said, this is not the right guy. You didn't get the right guy. This is not my slave. Well, he had gone through a judicial process which identified him as this slave, but it completely was fraudulent. So, yes, many thousands of free blacks in the North - from Boston, from New York, from Syracuse, from other places - now took the occasion to go to Canada because there, you were really free. Canada would not extradite fugitive slaves to the United States.

Of course, this is in a kind of irony considering that we as Americans tend to think of ourselves as a place that people come to in order to enjoy freedom. People throughout our history have fled from tyrannical regimes overseas, seeking liberty in the United States. But here you have thousands of Americans having to leave the United States in order to enjoy freedom. There was more freedom in Canada for them under a monarch, under the British monarchy, than there was in the liberty-loving United States.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Eric Foner. His new book is called "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Foner. He's the author of the new book "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad."

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was intended to help prevent the South from seceding, but you say it actually helped lead to the Civil War. Why?

FONER: Well, the Fugitive Slave Law, and you might say the fugitive slave issue, was a major catalyst of the growing sectional divide in the 1850s. The Fugitive Slave Law led to considerable opposition or even nullification, you might say, to use a Southern phrase, in a number of Northern states.

Remember, just like the South, the North was divided. You had much more conservative states like Pennsylvania, Indiana. And in those places, the Fugitive Slave Law was enforced pretty effectively. But if you get further up into New England, into upstate New York, northern Ohio, then it becomes more and more difficult to enforce. And you have these violent rescues of fugitive slaves, altercations between black and white crowds and police authorities or federal authorities, where sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. But this kind of violation of the law alarms more and more people in the South and says, you know, we can't really trust the North. And, you know, Southerners said, look, the right to get back fugitive slaves is in the Constitution. This is not open to debate. And yet, it's being violated in parts of the North. Well, if they will violate that part of the Constitution, how do we know they won't violate other parts of the Constitution down the road? How can we be sure that the constitutional protections for slavery will, you know, be recognized as time goes on?

As I mention in my book, when South Carolina secedes in 1860 - now, very few slaves got out of South Carolina, you know, that was a long way from the North. But when they secede and the secession - the legislature issues this declaration of the causes of secession, sort of like the Declaration of Independence had been. The longest part of it, the longest paragraph, is about fugitive slaves, that the North has violated the Fugitive Slave Law, it impeded the return of fugitive slaves. And that is their longest reason - the reason with the longest discussion of why the South must secede. So certainly the actions of fugitives, the actions of the Underground Railroad, the actions of sympathetic people in the North widened the gap between North and South. This is not the only cause of the Civil War by any means, but it is one of the important factors that led to secession and Civil War.

GROSS: You know, and in another irony of this story, the fugitive states - the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was used as a model for the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

FONER: Correct.

GROSS: In what way was it used as a model?

FONER: Yes, well, that is a great irony because the fugitive - the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in Reconstruction, one of the most important laws in our history which puts the notion of equal civil rights for all Americans regardless of race into our national law for the first time, it's modeled on the Fugitive Slave Act because it's an effort to override state - states which impede the rights or violate the rights of American citizens. The Fugitive Slave Law was to enforce a constitutional right of the South over and above Northern opposition. Now they use the same kind of structure with federal officials, federal penalties, to punish Southern states, which at this time are trying to almost put blacks back into slavery after the end of the Civil War.

So it's the same mechanism of federal oversight of local activities in order to protect a basic constitutional right - first the right to get fugitive slaves and now the right of freedom of the former slaves after the Civil War, which has been put into the Constitution and the 13th Amendment. But the mechanism is the same, so it's very ironic. I quote one of the members of Congress saying, we're using the weapons that slavery has placed in our hands now in the cause of freedom, but the same weapon of federal authority overriding local and state opposition.

GROSS: Are there certain myths about the Underground Railroad that you would like to debunk?

FONER: (Laughter) Historians are always debunking things of course. I think, you know, there are a number of myths, and some of them were propagated by abolitionists in the late 19th century, even by Sydney Howard Gay himself in a history of the United States he wrote years after the Civil War. Number one myth, which I don't think is widely held today but certainly had a long history, is that the Underground Railroad - or indeed the entire abolitionist movement - was as an activity of humanitarian whites on behalf of helpless blacks, that the heroes were the white abolitionists who assisted these fugitive slaves.

Now, they were heroic, and I admire people like that who, you know, really put themselves on the line to do this. But the fact is that black people were deeply involved in every aspect of the escape of slaves, whether it was the slaves themselves who made the decision to escape, which is the number one thing. But in the South, they were mostly helped by other black people, slave and free. When they got to Philadelphia or New York City, local free blacks assisted them all the way up - same thing - up in the - the Underground Railroad was interracial.

It was a very - it's actually something to bear in mind today when sometime racial tensions can be rather strong. This was an example of black and white people working together in a common cause to promote the cause at liberty, and I think it deserves recognition. But certainly, one should not in any way diminish the role of African Americans in this Underground Railroad operation.

There's another myth which some historians have sort of accepted over the past 20, 30 years, which is that there really was no Underground Railroad. In a way, some of the early work was so exaggerated about, you know, stations everywhere and every other house was hiding slaves and there were secret passwords and quilts with, you know, routes in them - great exaggeration. And then, of course, the next historian comes along and knocks it down and says no, no, no, no, no. There was no such thing. People escaped, but there was no operation. There was no - I think now, with my book and other books which have come out, we see the Underground Railroad for what it was. It was not a giant operation, but it was, as I said, a series of these local networks connected to each other, which did communicate, did operate effectively in some cases, not all, and did succeed in assisting a pretty good number of fugitive slaves to reach freedom. So I think it should be admired for what it was. There's no need to, you know, grossly exaggerate its operation or to deny that it existed at all.

GROSS: Let's get back to the Constitution. As you've pointed out, the Constitution upheld slavery. I mean, in Article IV, Section 2, it says, (reading) no person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, on consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service may be due.

So without mentioning the word slave, it basically says if you're a slave and you leave, you got to be taken back to the guy who owns you.

FONER: Right.

GROSS: So I just guess I'm just wondering what you make of the judicial philosophy of originalism, which is espoused by Justice Scalia, for one. And it says that, you know, the philosophy basically says you should read the Constitution as closely as you can to the intent of the original founders and also to take it as literally as possible. What do the originalists make of how the Constitution upheld slavery? Because if we're going to take that at face value, well, we're a really different country.

FONER: Well, I am a critic of Justice Scalia's mode of interpreting the Constitution. However, I do not believe that he wants to reinstitute slavery. Let us put it that way. I'm sure that Justice Scalia would say, well, look. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution after the Civil War pretty much abrogated the Fugitive Slave Clause, abrogated the three-fifths clause, which gave the South, you know, extra representation in Congress and the House of Representatives based on three-fifths of the slave population, abrogated the Slave Trade Clause, which allowed the importation of slaves from Africa to continue for another 20 years.

So it's not quite this language, but I think your point, though, in a larger sense is very important, which is that our Constitution was flawed from the beginning, that this is just a representation of the fact that slavery was deeply embedded in our nation. You know, when the Constitution was written, the slaves represented about 20 percent of the total American population. That's the highest black percentage in our entire history. They were a major part of the population of the United States. And yet, they had no rights whatsoever recognized in the Constitution, and they were not considered part of the we the people.

You know, the Constitution begins with the words, as you well know, we the people of the United States. Well, the slaves are not part of the people. They're here. They're referred to in the Constitution and in other place as other persons. There's the people, and then there's other persons. And that's the African-American population - the vast majority of whom were slaves at this point - and that is a, you know, that's a flaw, so to speak, in the DNA of our country. So without going into the nuances of constitutional interpretation, I think people who do think about the history of our country need to really come to terms with how slavery was so deeply embedded and shaped the development of the United States for many, many years.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Eric Foner. We're talking about his new book "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is historian Eric Foner. His new book is called "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad."

Your area of specialization is the area of the Civil War and just after - Reconstruction. And, in fact, your history of Reconstruction has just been republished in a new edition with a new introduction. So can you compare, a little bit, the history of that period as you were taught it when you were a student to how you teach it now? Because history is always changing. History is always being rewritten.

FONER: Yes, it is. You know, in a way, the subject that has always interested me it seems, that pops up in all of my books - this is something, of course, everyone is interested in - is how social change happens. Who is responsible? How does it happen? How did slavery end? I'm very interested in the struggle against slavery, the abolitionist movement. They were not a majority by any means. But, talking about changes in history, you know, when I was growing up and learning history, the abolitionists were just irresponsible fanatics. They helped to bring on an unnecessary civil war. They were universally condemned.

Today, I think abolitionists are seen much more as precursors of the modern civil rights era, as people who - even though they may have made errors, obviously - were actually engaged in a very, you know, noble effort to rid the country of a horrendous institution. Reconstruction, which was for many, many years viewed as sort of the low point in American history, a period of corruption, misgovernment, a period when blacks who were incapable of exercising democratic rights were - you know, somehow ran amok in the South, and the Ku Klux Klan were the heroes. Well, today, we see it completely differently. I think we see it as a period very important in the history of American democracy. That is the first effort to create a genuinely interracial democracy in this country. And the tragedy of Reconstruction is not that it was attempted, but that it failed.

You know, I think what has happened in the last half-century since the civil rights era, is that the racist underpinning of so much American historical writing has been eliminated. It's no longer possible to just say, oh, well, blacks are just incapable of taking part in democracy, and that's why, you know, Reconstruction didn't work or that's why the Civil War happened because just a bunch of fanatics got upset about slavery for no reason. Anyway, slavery wasn't that bad, was it?

No. I think today we have a much deeper understanding. As W. Du Bois said in "Black Reconstruction In America," way back in the 1930s - one of the great works of American history - if you just assume that African-Americans are human beings like everybody else, the whole edifice of historical interpretation on that period collapses - the edifice that existed back then.

GROSS: On this Martin Luther King Day, any other reflections that you want to share as a historian?

FONER: Well, you know, as I said, I find the Underground Railroad - the story of the Underground Railroad and the movement against slavery very inspiring, actually. It's an example in our history of men and women, black and white, people overcoming great divisions among them. You know, the barriers between black and white were far higher than they are today. And overcoming that in order to work in a collaborative way, cooperating with each other in a, I think, noble cause of trying to assist people who were escaping from slavery and trying to undermine the institution of slavery and, eventually, bring about its abolition. And I - you know, I think on Martin Luther King Day, it should lead us to remember that the civil rights movement had antecedents in our history. It had, you know - that this was a great social movement of the mid-19th century and that these are the things that inspire me in American history - the struggle of people to make this a better country. To me, that's what genuine patriotism is.

GROSS: Eric Foner, it's always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

FONER: Thank you, Terry - great to talk to you.

GROSS: Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and author of the new book, "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. One of Foner's earlier books, "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution," has just been published with a new introduction.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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