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The chapter takes the discussion into the Contested Region. The chapter opens by exploring what historian Edward Ayers has described as the “culture of dignity.” The culture of dignity, which prevailed across the region, emphasized law, justice, and the intrinsic worth of all human beings as values that constrained the individual assertion of violence. These norms led residents of the region to impose conditions on their toleration of slave catching. The chapter then explores the impact of this culture of conditional toleration on the Underground Railroad. In placing significant limits on the behavior of slave catchers, residents created a safer environment in which fugitives from enslavement could travel more openly and with less assistance. The result was a decline in the intensity of Underground activity as activist networks grew sparser and less organized farther from the Borderland. The particular concern of communities in the region for the preservation of human dignity and due process is further illustrated through an analysis of fugitive slave cases in which cultural missteps by slave catchers alienated communities in the region, sometimes explosively.
This chapter and the two that follow cover the period from 1838 to enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act in October 1850. The chapter begins with an examination of the covert networks that helped fugitives from enslavement traverse the Borderland in at least a dozen places between Quincy, IL, and Chester, PA. It then discusses the cultural roots of the violence of mastery, and dozens of incidents in which slaveholders and slave catchers brought the violence of mastery into the Borderland, rampaging through entire communities, breaking into homes, and on a few occasions killing and dismembering escapees who resisted. The chapter explores the impact of this violence on the lives of abolitionists, free blacks, and Underground activists in the Borderland and the manner in which the Underground Railroad adapted its operations to meet the challenge by embracing speed and stealth. Finally, the chapter discusses the dynamics of fugitive rescues in the Borderland, noting particularly the different dynamics of urban and rural rescues and the rarity of interracial cooperation in these efforts.
The Introduction defines the concept of cultures of violence, introduces the geography of violence on which the argument rests, and examines the historiography of the Underground Railroad. It explains why the historiography has tended to obscure this geography of violence and how that geography illuminates the operations of the Underground Railroad and the dynamics of the conflict over fugitives from enslavement. It concludes with a description of the organization of the book.
The chapter covers the period prior to the assassination of Elijah Lovejoy in 1838. It begins with a fugitive’s eye view of the journey through the North. It then discusses both the motivations that spurred enslaved men and women to make the journey in the first place and the enormous risks that they faced. The chapter then turns to Underground activists and the experiences that moved them to assist fugitives in defiance of slave catchers, the law, and often their own communities. The emergence of free black communities in the North and the arrival of escapees on the doorsteps of sympathetic whites sparked the creation of the first embryonic networks for the assistance of fugitives. Finally, the chapter surveys early fugitive slave rescues, including some that display geographically distinct reactions to the intrusion of slave catchers into Northern communities.
The chapter explores the collapse of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in the Contested Region. The overland Underground Railroad networks in the region were quickly being bypassed by the railroad transportation in the 1850s. Nevertheless, the high-profile fugitive rescues in the Free Soil Region convinced slave catchers that their efforts were better focused farther south, and as a result slave catching accelerated in the Contested Region in the middle and late 1850s. This led to a series of confrontations in which the behavior of the slave catchers and accompanying US Marshals was egregiously violent. Attempts by local and state authorities to bring the assailants to justice were frustrated by federal judges who fully sanctioned their recourse to the violence of mastery. These cases rendered the region’s conditional toleration of slave catching untenable. The result was a striking shift in the culture of violence as the region embraced the outright defiance that had long characterized Free Soil communities. As a consequence, in the late 1850s, the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act collapsed outside the narrow strip of territory that comprised the Borderland.
The chapter concludes the section by describing the relatively open operations of the Underground Railroad in the Free Soil Region. The roots of a distinct Free Soil culture of violence based on open defiance lay in the emergence of an African American ethos of self-assertion and community self-defense and in the abolitionist movement’s break with the culture of dignity, which led the movement to embrace the use of restrained violence to defend the “free soil” of the North. As a consequence, Underground activists in the region pioneered new and more open modes of operation. In Upper North strongholds such as Detroit; Oberlin, OH; central New York State; and Boston, abolitionists and vigilance committees publicly announced the passage of fugitives from enslavement and their efforts to provide assistance. The chapter concludes by examining the region’s increasingly open and successful defiance of state and federal fugitive slave laws, paying particular attention to the communal, interracial, and public nature of the resistance with which activists defended the region against the intrusion of slave catchers, regardless of the latter’s behavior.
The Epilogue explores the impact of competing cultures of violence on secession and the coming of the Civil War. The collapse of the Fugitive Slave Act convinced many in the South that slavery could no longer be preserved within the Union. The rendition of Lucy Bagby from Cleveland, OH, in 1861 marked an attempt to conciliate the South by rebuilding a national consensus on the normativity of proslavery violence. The public condemnation of the Republican officials who returned Bagby to slavery, along with the party’s rejection of compromise measures, demonstrated that this consensus could no longer be restored. For many in the North, the violence of mastery was a moral horror that they were determined to repudiate. For white Southerners, however, the violence of mastery lay at the heart of their understandings of identity and membership in the national community. The violence of mastery also shaped the manner in which the South approached separation from the North, producing acts of aggression and demands for submission during the secession winter of 1860–1861. The Civil War was thus in part the product of an irreconcilable conflict in the cultural perception of violence.
The chapter focuses on the renewed campaign by Southerners to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in the Free Soil Region, from which few fugitives had hitherto been recovered. The law’s passage triggered a storm of indignation across the region as communities gathered in public meetings and pronounced the law void and of no force. Nevertheless, the law emboldened slaveholders to pursue fugitives from enslavement who had taken refuge in abolitionist strongholds in the Upper North. In response, Underground activists took pains to publicize their activities and promised to protect fugitives who settled within the United States. As slave catchers ventured into the region, a series of spectacular public rescues garnered national attention. These large-scale acts of outright defiance revealed the determination of the region’s residents to defend the “free soil” of their communities by violence if necessary. Free Soil residents gathered in interracial crowds numbering in the thousands to confront slave catchers, humiliate those cooperating with the law, and punish those who performed the violence of mastery within their communities.
Chapters 5–7 bring the story into the 1850s. Chapter 5 opens with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the distinct regional reactions to the legislation. The discussion then turns to the law’s impact on the operations of the Underground Railroad in the Borderland. Though attempts to remand fugitives from the Borderland accelerated, enslaved African Americans continued to strike out for freedom in ever greater numbers. The law empowered slave catchers to retaliate legally and violently against Underground activists, but this added pressure was at least partially offset by the completion of rail transportation networks linking the Borderland with the Upper North, which boosted activists’ capacity to help fugitives traverse the region quickly. Though the new fugitive slave law did not succeed in suppressing Underground activity, it did inhibit resistance to fugitive slave renditions: most fugitive slave rescues in the region in the 1850s employed trickery and misdirection as opposed to the large-scale riots that had characterized the region in the 1840s.
As runaway slaves fled from the South to escape bondage, slave catchers followed in their wake. The arrival of fugitives and slave catchers in the North set off violent confrontations that left participants and local residents enraged and embittered. Historian Robert H. Churchill places the Underground Railroad in the context of a geography of violence, a shifting landscape in which clashing norms of violence shaped the activities of slave catchers and the fugitives and abolitionists who defied them. Churchill maps four distinct cultures of violence: one that prevailed in the South and three more in separate regions of the North: the Borderland, the Contested Region, and the Free Soil Region. Slave catchers who followed fugitives into the North brought with them a Southern culture of violence that sanctioned white brutality as a means of enforcing racial hierarchy and upholding masculine honor, but their arrival triggered vastly different violent reactions in the three regions of the North. Underground activists adapted their operations to these distinct cultures of violence, and the cultural collisions between slave catchers and local communities transformed Northern attitudes, contributing to the collapse of the Fugitive Slave Act and the coming of the Civil War.