On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870

Article excerpt

On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870. By David G. Smith. The North s Civil War. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. Pp. [xvi], 324. $70.00, ISBN 978-0-8232-4032-6.)

The generally accepted image of Pennsylvania's role in history is as an unequivocal free state--a place where the rights and humanity of African Americans were recognized and where freedom had meaning. Around the time of the Revolution, Pennsylvania founded the first American abolition society; it was the first state to gradually abolish slavery; and later it was essential to the Underground Railroad, all spurred by a significant and committed Quaker population.

This image is not necessarily wrong, but as David G. Smith argues, it fails to tell the whole story. What most consider to be the Pennsylvania story is really the Philadelphia story, and conditions were often very different in rural areas west of the city. Smith focuses on three counties--Cumberland, Adams, and Franklin, the last two bordering slave state Maryland--all part of a region where slaves and free blacks lived, moved through on their way farther north, and had their status and rights constantly debated by local whites in the antebellum period.

Smith reminds us of the centrality of rural and small-town life to the American experience in this period. He sees the Underground Railroad as "an example of a rural protest movement on a grand scale" (p. 10). While Philadelphia was crucial to the abolition movement in general and the Underground Railroad more specifically, much of the grassroots work of helping slaves escape went on in small towns and on farms, especially in border areas like Pennsylvania.

Just as today, for many nineteenth-century Americans, politics were intensely local. …