Were Members of the Underground Railroad Criminals?
“But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I have suffered, and most of them far worse.”
These are the words of Harriet Jacobs, who lived in a state of chattel slavery for twenty-seven years. After her courageous escape to the North, through various undertakings, she was able to write her personal history. In the preface to her story——and throughout the text——she appeals to women of the North as mothers to act on behalf of the enslaved mothers of the South. Through personal experience, she understood the level of degradation suffered by a slave and that the right Americans had to trade in human beings was a bad law.
As millions of people were being held against their will, the slave owners were reaping the benefits of free labor, while citizens elsewhere held varying opinions. The more noble citizens in Antebellum America acted as abolitionists, often placing themselves and their families in great peril. Why did ordinary men and women risk their very lives by breaking the law to help strangers? They acted as they did for the greater principle of liberty and justice. Aiding and directing fugitive slaves toward liberty was utilitarian justice and did no harm to slave owners as the legalization of slavery was, in itself, a “bad law,” thus making it the antithesis of a moral right.
Fugitive Slave Laws in America
America was built on the backs of slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, these human beings were second only to land as the most valuable commodity in the southern states. Slave owners, therefore, felt compelled to initiate legislation to protect their valuable, human assets.
Although the United States Constitution protected slavery under Article IV, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 allowed slave owners to cross state lines to retrieve their property, a growing number of abolitionist groups in the North were harboring runaway slaves in order to protect them from the pursuit of their masters. As tensions grew between the two regions of the country regarding the South’s peculiar institution, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision in 1842 finding, “the slaveholder’s right to his property overrode any contrary state legislation.”
The Court, however, continued in its opinion that enforcing the Constitutional clause relating to slavery was the onus of the federal government and that “states need not cooperate in any way.” That being the case, large plantation owners of the South pressured their Democratic representatives in congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated “all good citizens” to report their knowledge of fugitive slaves to authorities.
Southerners viewed the Act as a means of frightening the burgeoning network of abolitionists who comprised, in part, the Underground Railroad (UGRR). Slaveholders described the UGRR as a “Yankee network of lawbreakers who stole thousands of slaves each year.”
Criminal punishment of monetary fines and prison sentences were the tools of intimidation employed by the authors of the Act; unauthorized threats came from slave owners directly. Staunch abolitionists, such as Wendell Phillips, vehemently opposed and blatantly disregarded the federal law scarcely one month after its passage. Phillips incited his fellow Bostonians into protecting, at all costs, a pair of fugitives who had enjoyed two years of freedom in Boston before the passage of the Act. Bostonians turned out in droves and soon sent the slave hunters back to the South, empty handed.
A newspaper in Boston declared, “Massachusetts Safe Yet! The Higher Law Still Respected,” while a paper in Georgia deemed Boston to be a “black speck on the map.”Although a victory for the abolitionist cause, not even the great city of Boston was able to continue fighting the growing number of slave catchers infiltrating the Bay State. Going forward from 1850, the UGRR and all other escape networks had to go further north into Canada; the U.S. was no longer able to assure life and liberty.
The Philosophy of Abolitionists
The paradox of slavery is really quite remarkable. In an essay published one month before the start of America’s Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine denounced the practice of slavery. Paine condemns “Traders in MEN (an unnatural commodity!)…who wilfully[sic] sacrifice Conscience, and the character of integrity to that golden idol.”Succinctly stated, Paine suggests the vehement support for slavery was driven by money whereas abolitionists had the desire to see justice served. They achieved this by returning to the men and women of African descent their moral property; freedom.
People were not born in a condition of slavery. In order to be slaves, they had to become slaves. According to Socrates, “all things come to be in this way, opposites from opposites.”That being the case, logic dictates that one who became a fugitive was at one time a captive (or slave). Therefore, prior to being a slave, he had to be the opposite of a slave; a free man. There is nothing before freedom; the freedom to choose. This freedom is the original and sole moral property with which one is endowed from birth. That being the case, abolitionists and slave catchers unknowingly had one common interest; they each sought to return stolen property to its rightful owner, thus the dilemma presents itself in the case of chattel property whereby the “owner has a right to reclaim his goods that were stolen…so the slave, who is proper owner of his freedom, has a right to reclaim it, however often sold.” This conundrum is best addressed by analyzing legal rights within the larger arena of moral rights.
In 1850s America, the slave owner had a legal right to possess and capture slaves. However, "that one has a legal right to do something seems to have nothing much to do with the question of whether one has a moral right to do it.” Abolitionists deemed freedom to be a moral right thereby rendering the Fugitive Slave Act and all other legislation that legalized the institution of slavery as "bad laws."
Succinctly put, bad laws are those that contradict morality. Whereas defining morality is a complex philosophical endeavor, bad laws can be simplistically defined as being any legal right that one possesses that violates that moral right of another. Bad laws are laws that one “ought not” to have in the first place.These laws directly harm specific individuals and also prove detrimental to society as a whole. In the case of slavery, the slave is harmed directly. By oppressing the slave and thereby eliminating his potential for happiness, the slave holder eradicates any future utility the slave’s happiness may have provided for the entire society at large, as it is not feasible to separate an individual from the society in which he lives.
No person is ever entirely independent from fellow human beings, thus it can be concluded that the actions of one man potentially affect the actions of many. As mankind is interdependent, the oppressed African-American, either directly or indirectly, changes the course of his society’s history. While the slave suffers, so too does the free man who does nothing, as he unwittingly alters his circumstances by his own inaction. For, it is true that the “grand sources…of human suffering are in a great degree, many of them almost entirely, conquerable by human care and effort”
That was precisely the role of abolitionists in Antebellum America; they were endeavoring to attain moral justice for one group of people by breaking a United States federal law aimed at protecting the opposing group. The slave owners of the South claimed that not only were those who were aiding fugitive slaves stealing their property, they also cried that abolitionists were doing the slaves a disservice.
Large planters in the southern United States attempted to convince the growing anti-slavery movements of the northern region that slaves were well cared for and happy in their state of servitude. Most of these claimants cited the struggle for employment and overcrowding in the cities of the northern U.S. as a sound reason as to why they were acting in the best interests of their human property. Viewing African-Americans as racially inferior, owners often dehumanized slaves as a means by which to justify denying them the rights and freedoms enjoyed by white men.
In an article published in 1849, Thomas Carlyle went so far as to claim that “Negroes” were created to “be servants to those that are born wiser [than you], that are born lords [of you]—servants to the whites.”
Carlyle, like so many others who defended slavery, defined intellect by skin color. Carlyle, writing from England, was referring to the slaves of the West Indies whereas Thomas Paine, writing from the United States, refuted such arguments before they were ever uttered. Although at the time speaking of an inherited monarchy, one can juxtapose Paine’s words based on his consistent anti-slavery opinions.
In a small pamphlet entitled, Common Sense, he wrote that “male and female are the only distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth enquiring into.”That unanswered query was the cause of civil war and potentially irreparable harm.
Harm has been deemed too subjective to be succinctly defined. There are some cases of harm that can be considered fairly objective and agreed upon: A woman who is raped is harmed; A child who is taken from his mother never to see her again is harmed, and so is the mother; A man who is stripped to the waist and whipped with a leather strap on his bare skin is harmed; and one who physically labors in the elements from sunrise until sunset without compensation is harmed. These irrefutable harms are also irrefutable facts of slavery. The slave was abused and had no legal right to defend himself. The slave had no right to anything.
The denial of the innate right of the freedom to choose is perhaps the greatest harm of all, as from this one harm all of the others grew. Whereas “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” anyone taking action to impede individual sovereignty is causing harm. It is in the prevention of such action that “power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will” (On Liberty, 8). Individuals acting in such a manner to prevent harm are not extraordinary beings but rather they are courageous enough to fulfill the duties of humanity and utilitarian justice.
How Slavery Harmed All
There are some cases of harm that can be considered objective and fairly agreed upon: A woman who is raped is harmed; A child who is taken from his mother never to see her again is harmed, and so is the mother; A man who is stripped to the waist and whipped with a leather strap on his bare skin is harmed; and one who physically labors in the elements from sunrise until sunset without compensation is harmed. These irrefutable harms are also irrefutable facts of slavery. The slave was abused and had no legal right to defend himself. The slave had no right to anything.
The denial of the innate right of the freedom to choose is perhaps the greatest harm of all, as from this one harm all of the others grew. Whereas “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” anyone taking action to impede individual sovereignty is causing harm. It is in the prevention of such action that “power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will.”Individuals acting in such a manner to prevent harm are not extraordinary beings but rather they are courageous enough to fulfill the duties of humanity and utilitarian justice.
This form of justice can be found in no legal tomes or constitutional doctrines, but rather in the minds of aware and conscientious people. Abolitionists were just such people. They acted for the greater good. Not only did chattel slaves surpass slave owners in quantity, but their condition in life, through no fault of their own, was detrimental to the whole of society. Plantation mistresses flew into fits of rage as they were well aware that the children of slaves bore remarkable resemblances to their husbands.
White children became owners of their half-siblings. White farmers who were not as financially well-off as the large planters had no means by which to purchase slaves therefore were unable to compete with those who did not pay for labor. Economic downturns arose as little employment was available to southern whites. The tensions that grew in an expanding nation eventually led to the death of 628,000 men, countless others who were permanently wounded, and the assassination of the President the United States. Slavery——harm——led to all of those things.
The utilitarian knows that in order for society to thrive, the individuals who compose that society must do the same. Thrive, in this case, is not defined by monetary gain but rather by group cohesion, individual happiness, and collective justice. Sadly, this was not the case in Antebellum America as “so much less do the generality of mankind value liberty than power.”
Abolitionists were different in that they wanted liberty for all of mankind as opposed to the power that slave owners wanted for themselves. The men and women of the Underground Railroad sacrificed their safety and security because they knew it was their duty, thus, if they did not assist a fugitive, they were equally as guilty of harm as the master himself. Wherein the slave owner caused harm by his actions, the free man who did nothing caused an equal amount of harm by his inactions. It is, therefore, the obligation of all people to prevent harm when possible. By doing so, immediate justice will be served and future utility secured.
Harriet Tubman worked tirelessly to emancipate as many chattel slaves as possible. Born as a slave in Maryland circa 1820, she escaped bondage via her own physical strength and her wits. After securing her own freedom in New York State, she made 19 further trips to the upper South to liberate her family and as many other slaves as possible. She lived as a slave, as a fugitive, and as a free woman. She was the ablest of judges. It was she who had the ability to decide which was more pleasurable as a way of life; slavery or liberty.
Tubman best rendered a verdict by stating that “‘there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death…no man should take me alive.’” Harriet Jacobs, another woman who had the courage to flee bondage in order for her children to live in freedom, hid in an attic crawl space for seven years rather than return to her master. The experience of Tubman and Jacobs speaks for the thousands of others who made their way to freedom.
If we return to the beginning, we must do so from the end; from the opposite. That being the case, if a “just person is just because of his knowledge…the unjust person [is] unjust for the opposite reason.” If that is factored in with experience, then knowledge becomes wisdom, therefore making it true that “the just person is just because of his wisdom…the unjust person is unjust, then, because of his ignorance.” We have, it seems, been endowed with justice in the form of wisdom and injustice in the form of ignorance. Further, if people are unwillingly ignorant, they must therefore be unwillingly unjust. It can therefore be concluded that the just abolitionist acted with wisdom. Finally, it can be deduced that injustice stems from a lack of wisdom and those who continually commit unjust acts are those who are content with, albeit unaware of, their ignorance.
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- Harriet Jacobs,Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861, repr., New York: Penguin, 200), 3-4.
- James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era(New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 79.
- McPherson, 79.
- McPherson, 79.
- McPherson, 83.
- Thomas Paine, “African Slavery in America,” Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser, March 8, 1775, http://constitution.org/tp/afri.htm.
- Plato, Phaedo, 71 a-b.
- Paine, "African Slavery in America."
- Diane Jeske and Richard Fumerton, “The Right and the Wrong Ways to think about Rights and Wrongs,” in Readings in Political Philosophy: Theory and Applications, eds. Diane Jeske and Richard Fumerton (Toronto: Broadview Press, 2012), 312.
- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism(1871, repr., Mineola, NY: Dover, 2007), 37.
- Mill, Utilitarianism, 13.
- Thomas Carlyle, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” Fraser Magazine for Town And Country Vol. XL (February, 1849) http://www.efm.bris.ac.uk/het/carlyle/occasion.htm.
- Thomas Paine, Common Sense(1776, repr., London: Penguin, 1986), 72.
- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty(1859, repr., Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002), 8.
- Mill, On Liberty, 89.
- Sarah Bradford, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (1886 repr., New York: Corinth, 1961),29.
- Plato, On Justice, 375 c.
- Plato, On Justice, 375c.