Runaway Slaves: An Intimate History of Slave Resistance

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Runaway Slaves: An Intimate History of Slave Resistance

Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation

By John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger Oxford University Press, 455 pp., $16.95

In the course of human events, it sometimes becomes necessary for one people, regardless of color, gender or age, to dissolve the bonds which have connected them to another and to assume the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which nature and nature's God entitle them. Bondage, unlike liberty, was not natural; therefore, each year until the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865 an untold number of enslaved men, women and children declared themselves independent.

In 11 meticulously researched chapters, authors of Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, present compelling data about fugitives without respect for geographical boundaries. The authors, prominent historians and recipients of the Lincoln Prize for Runaway Slaves, make it abundantly clear that plantation slavery was not the idyllic homestead that historian Ulrich B. Phillips described in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Life and Labor in the Old South (1929). Had Phillips been closer to the mark, the estimated 50,000 runaways a year by 1860 would have remained "content" in their "place" and denied Franklin and Schweninger the cornucopia of information to undergird the first full-length study of runaway slaves in the United States.

Runaway Slaves is an intimate history of resistance by slaves who sought liberty from arduous labor, interference with their lives, cruel punishments and bondage. It is also a history of slave owners, "who no matter how diligent, punitive, or lenient; no matter how imaginative, ingenious, or attentive... remained unable to halt the stream of slaves that left their plantations and farms."

Slaveholders failed to stop this massive outflow of freedom seekers who, for the most part, failed to liberate themselves permanently, yet neither slave owners nor slaves ever ceased trying. Why? Franklin and Schweninger provide answers by examining the slaves' response to day-to-day routines, conditions of life and chances for freedom. On the obverse side, the authors examine the motives and reactions of owners who, ostensibly, did not understand why their slaves absconded.

There were jobs to be had and money to be made in hunting, housing and selling fugitives, whether symbolic or real. …