Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad tells a story that will surprise most readers. Among its biggest surprises is that, despite the book’s subtitle, the Underground Railroad often was not hidden at all. Abolitionist groups made little secret of assisting runaways—in fact, they trumpeted it in pamphlets, periodicals, and annual reports. In 1850, the year of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, the New York State Vigilance Committee publicly proclaimed its mission to “receive, with open arms, the panting fugitive.” A former slave in Syracuse, Jermain W. Loguen, announced himself in the local press as the city’s “agent and keeper of the Underground Railroad Depot” and held “donation parties” to raise money, while newspapers published statistics on the number of fugitives he helped.
Underground Railroad bake sales, as improbable as these may sound, became common fund-raisers in Northern towns and cities, and bazaars with the slogan “Buy for the sake of the slave” offered donated luxury goods and handmade knickknacks before the winter holidays. “Indeed,” Foner writes, “abolitionists helped to establish the practice of a Christmas ‘shopping season’ when people exchanged presents bought at commercial venues.” For thousands of women, such events also turned ordinary, “feminine” chores like baking, shopping, and sewing into thrilling acts of moral commitment and political defiance.
Even politicians who had sworn oaths to uphold the Constitution—including its clause mandating the return of runaways to their rightful masters—flagrantly ignored their duty. William Seward openly encouraged Underground Railroad activity while governor of New York and (not so openly) sheltered runaways in his basement while serving in the U.S. Senate. Judge William Jay, a son of the first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, resolved to disregard fugitive-slave laws, and donated money to help escapees.
Eventually, such defiance gained legal standing, as Northern states passed “personal liberty” acts in the 1850s to exempt state and local officials from federal fugitive-slave laws. It is a little-known historical irony that right up until the eve of Southern secession in 1860, states’ rights were invoked as often by Northern abolitionists as by Southern slaveholders. - The Atlantic