The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Doubleday
Hardly anyone used it, but it provides us with moral comfort—and white heroes.
The crate arrived, via overland express, one spring evening in 1849. Three feet long, two feet wide, and two and a half feet deep, it had been packed the previous morning in Richmond, Virginia, then carried by horse cart to the local office of the Adams Express Company. From there, it was taken to the railroad depot, loaded onto a train, and, on reaching the Potomac, transferred to a steamer, where, despite its label—this side up with care—it was placed upside down until a tired passenger tipped it over and used it as a seat. After arriving in the nation’s capital, it was loaded onto a wagon, dumped out at the train station, loaded onto a luggage car, sent on to Philadelphia, unloaded onto another wagon, and, finally, delivered to 31 North Fifth Street. The person to whom the box had been shipped, James Miller McKim, was waiting there to receive it. When he opened it, out scrambled a man named Henry Brown: five feet eight inches tall, two hundred pounds, and, as far as anyone knows, the first person in United States history to liberate himself from slavery by, as he later wrote, “getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state.”
McKim, a white abolitionist with the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, had by then been working for the Underground Railroad for more than a decade, and he was awed by the courage and drama of Brown’s escape, and of others like it. In an article he wrote some years later, he predicted that future generations of Americans would come to share his emotions:
Now deemed unworthy of the notice of any, save fanatical abolitionists, these acts of sublime heroism, of lofty self-sacrifice, of patient martyrdom, these beautiful Providences, these hair-breadth escapes and terrible dangers, will yet become the themes of the popular literature of this nation, and will excite the admiration, the reverence and the indignation of the generations yet to come.
It did not take long for McKim’s prediction to come true. The Underground Railroad entered our collective imagination in the eighteen-forties, and it has since been a mainstay of both national history and local lore. But in the past decade or so it has surged into “the popular literature of this nation”—and the popular everything else, too. This year alone has seen the publication of two major Railroad novels, including Oprah’s first book-club selection in more than a year, Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (Doubleday). On TV, the WGN America network aired the first season of “Underground,” which follows the fates of a group of slaves, known as the Macon Seven, who flee a Georgia plantation.
Nonfiction writers, too, have lately returned to the subject. In 2004, the Yale historian David Blight edited “Passages to Freedom,” an anthology of essays on the Underground Railroad. The following year, Fergus Bordewich published “Bound for Canaan,” the first national history of the Railroad in more than a century. And last year, Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia, published “Gateway to Freedom,” about the Railroad’s operations in New York City. Between 1869 and 2002, there were two adult biographies of Harriet Tubman, the Railroad’s most famous “conductor”; more than four times as many have been published since then, together with a growing number of books about her for children and young adults—five in the nineteen-seventies, six in the nineteen-eighties, twenty-one in the nineteen-nineties, and more than thirty since the turn of this century. An HBO bio-pic about Tubman is in development, and earlier this year the U.S. Treasury announced that, beginning in the next decade, she will appear on the twenty-dollar bill.
Other public and private entities have likewise taken up the cause. Since 1998, the National Park Service has been working to create a Network to Freedom, a system of federally designated, locally managed Underground Railroad sites around the country. The first national museum dedicated to the subject, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, opened in Cincinnati in 2004, and next March the Park Service will inaugurate its first Railroad-related national monument: the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, in Cambridge, Maryland, near Tubman’s birthplace.
This outpouring of interest suggests that we have collectively caught on to what McKim long ago understood: that the stories of those who fled slavery and those who helped them to freedom are among the most moving in our nation’s history. It was McKim’s hope that these stories would excite our admiration, reverence, and indignation, and they do. But, as more recent work has made clear, they should also incite our curiosity and skepticism: about how the Underground Railroad really worked, why stories about it so consistently work on us, and what they teach us—or spare us from learning—about ourselves and our nation.
No one knows who coined the term. Some ascribe it to a thwarted slave owner, others to a runaway slave. It first appeared in print in an abolitionist newspaper in 1839, at the end of a decade when railways had come to symbolize prosperity and progress, and three thousand miles of actual track had been laid across the nation. Frederick Douglass used the term in his 1845 autobiography—where he laments that indiscreet abolitionists are turning it into “an upperground railroad”—and Harriet Beecher Stowe used it in 1852, in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” when one slave-catcher cautions another against delaying pursuit of a fugitive “till the gal’s been carried on the underground line.” By the following year, the Times was reporting that the term had “come into very general use to designate the organized arrangements made in various sections of the country, to aid fugitives from slavery.”
Seldom has our national lexicon acquired a phrase so appealing to the imagination, or so open to misinterpretation. In his new novel, Colson Whitehead exploits both those qualities by doing knowingly what nearly every young child first learning our history does naïvely: taking the term “Underground Railroad” literally. His protagonist, a teen-age girl named Cora, flees the Georgia plantation where she was born into slavery and heads north on a series of rickety subterranean trains—one- or two-car numbers, driven by actual conductors and reached via caves or through trapdoors in buildings owned by sympathetic whites.
Whitehead has a taste for fantastical infrastructure, first revealed via the psychically active elevators in his brilliant début novel, “The Intuitionist.” Those elevators were the perfect device—mingling symbolic resonance with Marvel Comics glee, absolved of improbability by the particularity and force of Whitehead’s imagination. In “The Underground Railroad,” he more or less reverses his earlier trick. Rather than imbue a manufactured box with mystery, he turns our most evocative national metaphor into a mechanical contraption. It is a clever choice, reminding us that a metaphor never got anyone to freedom. Among his other concerns in this book, Whitehead wants to know what does: how the Underground Railroad really worked, and at what cost, and for whom.
Those questions were first asked in an extensive and systematic way by an Ohio State University historian named Wilbur Siebert. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, when many parents of the Civil War dead were still alive to grieve for their children and former slaves still outnumbered freeborn African-Americans, Siebert began contacting surviving abolitionists or their kin and asking them to describe their efforts to aid fugitives from slavery. The resulting history, published in 1898 and entitled “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom,” depicted a network of more than three thousand anti-slavery activists, most of them white, who helped ferry largely anonymous runaways to freedom. That history has been diffusing through the culture ever since, gathering additional details along the way and profoundly shaping our image of the Underground Railroad. In that image, a clandestine organization of abolitionists—many of them Quaker or otherwise motivated by religious ideals—used covert methods (tunnels, trapdoors, concealed passageways) and secret signals (lanterns set in windows, quilts hung on laundry lines) to help convey enslaved African-Americans to freedom.
That story, like so many that we tell about our nation’s past, has a tricky relationship to the truth: not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized. For one thing, far from being centrally organized, the Underground Railroad was what we might today call an emergent system: it arose through the largely unrelated actions of individuals and small groups, many of whom were oblivious of one another’s existence. What’s more, even the most active abolitionists spent only a tiny fraction of their time on surreptitious adventures with packing crates and the like; typically, they carried out crucial but banal tasks like fund-raising, education, and legal assistance. And while fugitives did often need to conceal themselves en route to freedom, most of their hiding places were mundane and catch-as-catch-can—haylofts and spare bedrooms and swamps and caves, not bespoke hidey-holes built by underground engineers. As for the notion that passengers on the Underground Railroad communicated with one another by means of quilts: that idea originated, without any evident basis, in the eighties (the nineteen-eighties).
The putative role of textiles and architecture in antebellum activism doesn’t matter that much, but other distortions in Siebert’s story do. No one disputes that white abolitionists were active in the Underground Railroad, but later scholars argued that Siebert had exaggerated both their numbers and their importance, while downplaying or ignoring the role played by African-Americans. Among religious sects, for example, the Quakers generally receive the most credit for resisting slavery, with secondary acknowledgment going to the wave of evangelical Christianity that spread across the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century, in the movement known as the Second Great Awakening. Yet scant mainstream attention goes to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was established in 1816, in direct response to American racism and the institution of slavery, and played at least as crucial a role in raising money, aiding fugitives, and helping former slaves who had found their way to freedom make a new life.
This lopsided awareness holds not only for institutions but for individuals. Many people know of William Lloyd Garrison, one of the country’s leading white anti-slavery activists, while almost no one knows about the black abolitionist William Still—one of the most effective operators and most important historians of the Underground Railroad, whose book about it, published a quarter of a century before Siebert’s, was based on detailed notes he kept while helping six hundred and forty-nine fugitives onward toward freedom. Likewise, more people know the name of Levi Coffin, a white Midwestern Quaker, than that of Louis Napoleon, a freeborn black abolitionist, even though both risked their lives to help thousands of fugitives to safety.
This allocation of credit is inversely proportional to the risk that white and black anti-slavery activists faced. It took courage almost everywhere in antebellum America to actively oppose slavery, and some white abolitionists paid a price. A few were killed; some died in prison; others, facing arrest or worse, fled to Canada. But these were the exceptions. Most whites faced only fines and the opprobrium of some in their community, while those who lived in anti-slavery strongholds, as many did, went about their business with near-impunity.
Black abolitionists, by contrast, always put life and liberty on the line. If caught, free blacks faced the possibility of being illegally sold into slavery, while fugitives turned agents faced potential reënslavement, torture, and murder. Harriet Tubman is rightly famous for how boldly she faced those risks: first when she fled slavery herself; then during the roughly twenty return trips she made to the South to help bring others to freedom; and, finally, during the war, when she accompanied Union forces into the Carolinas, where they disrupted supply lines and, under her direction, liberated some seven hundred and fifty slaves. By then, slaveholders in her home state of Maryland were clamoring for her capture, dead or alive, and, in the words of her first biographer, publicly debating “the different cruel devices by which she would be tortured and put to death.”
Tubman, of course, is the one black conductor on the Underground Railroad whose fame is commensurate with her work. She is also the only black conductor most people know—though William Still’s reputation may be on the rise, courtesy of his small but compelling role in the uneven but often excellent TV series “Underground.” Still, while white abolitionists remain statistically overrepresented in stories about the Underground Railroad, the recent set suggests that, more than a century after Siebert, the balance may finally be shifting. “Who built it?” one of Whitehead’s fugitives asks, on first reaching a station on the Underground Railroad and peering down a tunnel where iron tracks disappear into darkness. “Who builds anything in this country?” the agent answers.
The fugitive-slave narrative presents a curious paradox. In terms of content, it describes one of the darkest eras of American history; in terms of form, it is, in a way, the perfect American story. Its plot is the central one of Western literature: a hero goes on a journey. Its protagonist obeys the dictates of her conscience instead of the dictates of the state, thereby satisfying our national appetite for righteous outlaws. And its narrative arc bends in our preferred direction: from Tubman to Katniss Everdeen, from “The Shawshank Redemption” to Cheryl Strayed, we adore stories of individuals who fight their way to actual or psychological freedom.
Although such heroes make their journeys under duress, fugitive-slave stories are also a form of travel narrative. And, while in real life fugitives ran in every imaginable direction and were often caught or forced to turn back or died en route, in our stories the direction of travel is more nearly uniform. On the Underground Railroad, geography is plot: the South represents iniquity and bondage, the North enlightenment and freedom.
Whitehead, a canny storyteller, makes use of this narrative tradition in “The Underground Railroad,” while also considerably complicating it. Freedom is illusory in his novel, and iniquity unbound by latitude, but he knows that the story of slavery is fundamentally the story of America, and he uses Cora’s journey to observe our nation, from an upper-crust mixed-race family in Boston to a farming community in Indiana. Some of the finest parts of the novel involve the effort to make sense of a new place—whether through the tiny attic window from which Cora studies the cultural, political, and natural landscape of a North Carolina town or on the long, strange wagon ride she takes through a Tennessee landscape devastated by wildfire. As in “Lolita,” the moral crisis is so consuming that it’s easy to miss the journey—but the journey is the essence of this novel.
Indeed, the most effective liberties that Whitehead takes are not with Cora’s mode of transport but with the terrain through which she travels. Station by station, he builds a physical landscape out of the chronology of African-American history. Cora’s northward journey first lands her in South Carolina, where what initially seems to be a policy of paternalistic benevolence toward blacks turns out to mask a series of disturbing medical interventions: a kind of early, statewide Tuskegee experiment. From there, she moves on to North Carolina, which has implemented, to genocidal ends, the ideals of the American Colonization Society—a real organization and social movement, evoked but unmentioned by Whitehead, that sought to end slavery and return all blacks to Africa, not least to make real the enduring fantasy of a white America. In Whitehead’s fictional version, new race laws forbid blacks to enter the state, and those caught within its borders are tortured, murdered, and left hanging on trees as a warning to others. North Carolina, one character observes, has succeeded in abolishing slavery. “On the contrary,” another corrects him. “We abolished niggers.”
As all this suggests, Cora is trying to escape from much more than a plantation. In the temporally elastic landscape through which she flees, it is slavery, as much as the slave-catcher, that is pursuing her, and anyone alive in today’s America knows that she will never entirely outrun it. Indeed, at times Cora seems to be already traversing a future bereft of full freedom—the landscape blighted by proto-Jim Crow, her journey a private Great Migration. Behind the slave-catcher we can almost glimpse the police officer misusing lethal force; behind the manacles on the walls of a train depot, the bars of mass incarceration.
Still, for all the liberties that “The Underground Railroad” takes with the past, they have nothing on those in “Underground Airlines” (Mulholland Books), by the novelist and playwright Ben Winters, best known for his 2009 parody, “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.” (As it happens, Colson Whitehead’s previous book was about zombies.) Winters posits an alternate history in which the Civil War was averted and slavery, never abolished on the national level, persists into our own era, in what are called the Hard Four: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Carolinas, which together hold three million people in bondage. The protagonist, known mostly as Victor, is a fugitive slave who, after being apprehended, makes a Faustian bargain: in exchange for keeping his freedom, he agrees to work for the U.S. Marshals Service to catch other runaways.
When “Underground Airlines” opens, Victor is working his two-hundred-and-tenth case, trying to track down a mysterious fugitive, nicknamed Jackdaw, who has run away from an Alabama textile plantation. To find him, Victor must infiltrate the national anti-slavery network known as the Underground Airlines—not a literal entity here but “the root of a grand, extended metaphor,” now updated: airport security, gate agents, connecting flights, baggage handlers. “The Airlines flies on the ground, in package trucks and unmarked vans and stolen tractor-trailers,” Winters writes. “It flies in the illicit adjustment of numbers on packing slips, in the suborning of plantation guards and the bribing of border security agents, in the small arts of persuasion: by threat or cashier’s check or blow job.”
Winters, also the author of several mysteries, is working partly in the genre of the hardboiled detective novel; Victor is a classic noir antihero, whose self-interested amorality cloaks a troubled heart. But “Underground Airlines” also belongs to the tradition of counterfactual secession stories, à la Harry Turtledove’s “The Guns of the South” and MacKinlay Kantor’s “If the South Had Won the Civil War.” Such alternate histories run the risk of piling on textbooky details in the interest of proving the credibility of events that never happened, but Winters gets the balance right. He is careful to set up a plausible case for how history shifted off-kilter (Lincoln is assassinated before an armed conflict can break out; Congress, in grief and chaos, jams through a compromise that preserves both the Union and slavery), and he paints a convincing picture of what fugitive life would look like in our own era. (Homeland Security has a division called Internal Border and Regulation, the slave-catchers’ most fearsome tools are technological, and plantation overseers are supplied by private contractors.) But he is ultimately far more interested in the political, intellectual, and moral compromises that people make in order to live in the presence of, and sustain the existence of, legal bondage. Like Whitehead, though in a strikingly different way, he wants to get us to see the past in the present—the innumerable ways that we still live in a world made by slavery.
The first train ride that Cora takes in “The Underground Railroad” begins just below a farmhouse in rural Georgia and ends underneath a tavern in South Carolina. Whitehead, who knows his history, sneaks a little asterisk into the escape. “It was commonly held,” he writes, “that the underground railroad did not operate this far south.”
It did not. Contrary to a claim made by Siebert and subsequently reflected in myriad popular representations, the Underground Railroad didn’t lead “from the Southern states to Canada.” In fact, with very rare exceptions, it didn’t operate below the Mason-Dixon Line at all. Aside from a few outposts in border states, the Railroad was a Northern institution. As a result, for the roughly sixty per cent of America’s slaves who lived in the Deep South in 1860, it was largely unknown and entirely useless.
These are inconvenient facts for those who like to locate America’s antebellum conscience in the North. Had that region really been so principled, it wouldn’t have needed a clandestine system to convey fugitives beyond its borders to a foreign nation. Instead, while slavery itself was against the law in the North, upholding the institution of slavery was the law. As a nation, the United States regarded it as a legitimate practice, respected the right of white Southerners to own other human beings, and expressed that respect in laws that governed not half but all of the land.
This was a moral disaster for our country, and a terror for fugitive slaves. The obligation to return them to their owners was enshrined in the Constitution, then further codified in 1793, and in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—which, as Foner notes, was among the most draconian laws ever enacted in this nation. It rendered impotent any Northern ordinances designed to protect fugitives; compelled citizens to assist in capturing them; set harsh civil and criminal punishments for failing to do so; created a legal document ordering a specific fugitive to be returned to his or her master that could not be challenged in any court of law; and established a fee system whereby officials adjudicating fugitive-slave cases earned ten dollars if they decided in favor of the owner and five if they decided for the slave.
“We could see no spot, this side of the ocean, where we could be free,” Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography: fugitives themselves knew that they were only marginally better off in the ostensibly free state of Ohio than across the border in Kentucky, only marginally safer in Maine or Michigan or Wisconsin than in Maryland and North Carolina and Washington, D.C. Outside of scattered pockets in upstate New York, Massachusetts, and the Midwest, moral opposition to slavery was not the norm above the Mason-Dixon Line, and fugitives were not exactly welcomed with open arms. In 1858, an editorial in a Vermont newspaper demanded that “a log must be laid across the track of the underground railroad,” and went on to argue, in terms that echo today’s debates over refugees, for the immediate cessation of “the illegal introduction of colored persons in the free states” to “prevent a large yearly increase of that class of population which is hanging like a millstone around the neck of our industrial progress.” Several ostensibly free states, including Illinois and Indiana, did just that, passing laws that prohibited free blacks from settling inside their borders. On the eve of the Civil War, the mayor of New York proposed that the city secede from the Union to protect its economic relationship with the South.
We should not be surprised, then, that most people who slipped the bonds of slavery did not look north. In fact, despite its popularity today, the Underground Railroad was perhaps the least popular way for slaves to seek their freedom. Instead, those who fled generally headed toward Spanish Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Native American communities in the Southeast, free-black neighborhoods in the upper South, or Maroon communities—clandestine societies of former slaves, some fifty of which existed in the South from 1672 until the end of the Civil War. Together, such runaways likely outnumbered those who, aided by Northern abolitionists, made their way to free states or to Canada.
Moreover, most slaves who sought to be free didn’t run at all. Instead, they chose to pursue liberty through other means. Some saved up money and purchased their freedom. Others managed to earn a legal judgment in their favor—for instance, by having or claiming to have a white mother (beginning in Colonial times, slave status, like Judaism, passed down through the maternal line), or by claiming to have been manumitted. In “Slaves Without Masters,” the historian Ira Berlin quotes an irate man addressing a neighbor who had freed his slaves. “I will venture to assert,” he complained, “that a vastly greater number of slave people have passed and are passing now as your free men than you ever owned.”
The more you try to put the Underground Railroad in context, in other words, the tinier it seems. Most runaways did not head north, and most slaves who sought their liberty did not run away. And then there is the largest and most important context, the one we least like to acknowledge: from the vast, vicious, legally permitted, fiercely defended enterprise that was American slavery, almost no one ever escaped at all.
No one knows for sure how many enslaved Americans escaped with the help of the Underground Railroad. Foner estimates that, between 1830 and 1860, some thirty thousand fugitives passed through its networks to freedom. Other calculations suggest that the total number is closer to fifty thousand—or, at the highest end, twice that many.
What we do know for sure is this: in 1860, the number of people in bondage in the United States was nearly four million. By then, slavery in this country was more than two hundred years old, and although estimates are hard to come by, perhaps twice that many million African-Americans had lived their lives in chains. Most accounts of fugitive slaves do not invoke those numbers, and most Americans do not know them. The Underground Railroad is a numerator without a denominator.
The problem, then, is not the stories we tell; it’s the stories we don’t tell. In 1988, after her own story about a runaway slave, “Beloved,” won the Pulitzer Prize, Toni Morrison described the scope of this silence. “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of or recollect the absences of slaves,” Morrison said. “There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no three-hundred-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence, or, better still, on the banks of the Mississippi.”
In the decades since Morrison spoke, all of that has only barely begun to change. We have told a few more stories, organized a few more exhibits, planned a few new museums, including one devoted to all of African-American history, opening next month on the National Mall, in Washington, D.C., and the privately funded Whitney Plantation, in Louisiana, the first to be wholly dedicated to slavery. Yet, more than a hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, you still will not find, anywhere in our country, a federal monument to the millions of people whom we, as a nation, kept in bondage. To put that omission in perspective, there are more than eighty national parks and monuments and countless other federal memorials commemorating the Civil War. That war lasted four years. Slavery lasted two and a half centuries.
Until the very end of that time, most white Americans, North and South, either actively fought to maintain the institution of slavery or passively sustained and benefitted from it. Only a small fraction had the moral clarity to recognize its evils without caveat or compromise, and, before the war broke out, very few did anything to directly challenge it. Fewer still took the kind of action that later made agents of the Underground Railroad such widely admired figures. Exactly how few is hard to know, but most historians now dismiss Siebert’s original tally of three thousand as considerably exaggerated, compiled as it was from post-hoc accounts. Eric Foner, making the best of difficult data, suggests that, across the country and throughout the duration of slavery, the number of white Americans who regularly aided fugitives was in the hundreds.
Only after the fact—when it no longer required vision or courage or personal sacrifice; when the Civil War was over and the effort to distance ourselves from the moral stain of slavery had begun—did large numbers of white Americans grow interested in being part of the story of African-American liberation. That interest led to the first major renovation and expansion of our favorite piece of mythic infrastructure, a project that began with the work of Wilbur Siebert. A similar expansion is under way in our own times. Much of it is welcome: over all, the recent crop of underground stories feature more black agency, fewer white saviors, greater attentiveness not only to runaways but to what they were running from. The boom in public exhibitions and institutions honoring Railroad sites, however, in part reflects the fact that it has now become not only morally but also economically advantageous to be associated with the Underground Railroad; in contrast to even twenty years ago, significant numbers of people will pay to visit such places. A similar trend is appearing in private real estate. As the historian David Blight wondered, “Is there a realtor in the Northern or border states selling old or historic homes, largely to white people, who has not contemplated the market value of space that might have been used in the nineteenth century to hide black people who were fugitives from slavery?”
That desire to literally own part of the story of the Underground Railroad is extremely widespread and is much of what makes it so popular in the first place. In the entire history of slavery, the Railroad offers one of the few narratives in which white Americans can plausibly appear as heroes. It is also one of the few slavery narratives that feature black Americans as heroes—which is to say, one of the few that emphasize the courage, intelligence, and humanity of enslaved African-Americans rather than their subjugation and misery. By rights, the shame of oppression should fall exclusively on the oppressor, yet one of the most insidious effects of tyranny is to shift some of that emotional burden onto the oppressed. The Underground Railroad relieves black and white Americans alike, although in very different ways, of the burden of feeling ashamed.
White Americans also feature as villains in Underground Railroad stories, of course, but often in ways that minimize over-all white responsibility. Because the stories focus on the fugitive, much of the viciousness of slavery is displaced onto the slave-catcher—an odious figure, to be sure, but ultimately an epiphenomenon of an odious system. Some recent Underground Railroad stories manage to resist that figure’s allure. Victor, the slave-catcher in “Underground Airlines,” is interesting not only because he is a former fugitive but because he is an essentially bureaucratic figure—one of many such people employed by the federal government to navigate and enforce the byzantine system by which slavery endures. But Arnold Ridgeway, the slave-catcher in Colson Whitehead’s novel, and August Pullman, in “Underground,” are Ahab-like characters, privately and demonically obsessed with tracking down specific fugitives. They both come off as irrationally committed to the hunt (and, like all supervillains, irrationally unkillable), and both risk locating the atrocities of slavery in individual pathology.
In reality, and notwithstanding the viciousness of its many enforcers, slavery was institutional. The Underground Railroad, by contrast, was personal: a scattering of private citizens, acting on conscience, and connected for the most part only as the constellations are—from a great distance, by their light. They have earned our admiration and reverence, as McKim knew they would, and we have made much of their few stories, in part for suspect reasons: because they assuage our conscience, distract us from tragedy with thrilling adventures, give us a comparatively comfortable place to rest in a profoundly uncomfortable past.
Yet there are also deep and honorable reasons that we are drawn to these stories: they show us the best parts of ourselves and articulate our finest vision of our nation. When Congress approved funding for the Network to Freedom, it noted, correctly, that “the Underground Railroad bridged the divides of race, religion, sectional differences, and nationality; spanned state lines and international borders; and joined the American ideals of liberty and freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the extraordinary actions of ordinary men and women working in common purpose to free a people.”
It is to our credit if these are the Americans to whom we want to trace our moral genealogy. But we should not confuse the fact that they took extraordinary actions with the notion that they lived in extraordinary times. One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within. The great virtue of a figurative railroad is that, when someone needs it—and someone always needs it—we don’t have to build it. We are it, if we choose.