The Genesis of the Underground Railroad

Justice Joseph Story.

Justice Joseph Story wrote a decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania that would put the United States Supreme Court in a possession of relieving northern state officials of responsibility “for returning fugitive slaves, and increasingly northern state legislatures instructed them to do so.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 654.

This new development inflamed southerners, and the resulting resentment would manifest itself in the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which established “a federal bureaucracy to enforce rendition.” Id.

Abolitionists responded by beginning to rescue slaves, sending them on the “underground railroad” to freedom. Harriet Tubman, the most famous “conduct” on the underground railroad, was a refugee from slavery herself, and she started her rescue work in the 1850s. See id.

Slavery was so unpopular in some areas of the North that when fugitives were held by authorities, mobs would form to overwhelm the authorities and secure the fugitives’ freedom. See id.

Meanwhile, individuals like Frederick Douglass also took advantage of the North’s sympathies and spread the word about abolitionism. Id. citing John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men (Cambridge, Mass., 2002), 141-58.

In short, the more fiery the southerners became and the more they held tight to slavery, the stronger their opposition became. Abolitionists and those who were involved in the underground railroad only became more emboldened by the fact that the Supreme Court and the North were so accommodating to abolitionism.

As the two sides were bringing the conflict to a head, it was becoming increasingly clear that something drastic was necessarily going to happen. Little did they realize that in just a short time, their worst fears would come true and war would break out.

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