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The United States of America: A History
Book 3: Chapter IX - The Underground Railway


THE conflict deepened as years passed. The Abolitionists became more irrepressible, the Slave-holders more savage. There seemed no hope of the law becoming just. The American people have a deep reverence for law, but here it was overborne by their sense of injustice. The wicked law was habitually set at defiance. Plans were carefully framed for aiding the escape of slaves. It was whispered about among the negroes that at certain points they were sure to find friends, shelter, safe conveyance to Canada. Around every plantation there stretched dense jungles, swamps, pathless forests. The escaping slave fled to these gloomy solitudes. They hunted him with blood-hounds, and many a poor wretch was dragged back to groan under deeper brutalities than before. If happily undiscovered, he made his way to certain well-known stations, a chain of which passed him safely on to the protection of the British flag. This was the Underground Railway. Now and then its agents were discovered. In that miserable time it was a grave offence to help a slave to escape. The offender was doomed to heavy fine or long imprisonment. Some died in prison of the hardships they endured. But the Underground Railway never wanted agents. No sooner had the unjust law claimed its victim than another stepped into his place. During many years the average number of slaves freed by this agency was considerably over a thousand.

The slave-holders made it unsafe for Northerners of antislavery Opinions to remain in the South. Acts of brutal violence —very frequently resulting in murder—became very common. During one year eight hundred persons were (1860) robbed, whipped, tarred and feathered, or murdered for suspected antipathy to slavery. The possession of an anti-slavery newspaper or book involved expulsion from the State; and the circulation of such works could scarcely be expiated by any punishment but death. In Virginia and Maryland it was gravely contemplated to drive the free negroes from their homes, or to sell them into slavery and devote the money thus obtained to the support of the common schools Arkansas did actually expel her free negroes. The slave-holders were determined that nothing which could remind their victims of liberty should be suffered to remain.

It was well said by Mr. Seward that they greatly erred who deemed this collision accidental or ephemeral. it was "an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces." All attempts at compromise would be short-lived and vain.

The most influential advocate of the numerous compromises by which the strife was sought to be calmed, was Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay was much loved for his genial dispositions, much honoured and trusted in for his commanding ability. For many years of the prolonged struggle he seemed to stand between North and South - wielding authority over both. Although Southern, he hated slavery, and the slave-holders had often to receive from his lips emphatic denunciations of their favourite system. But he hated the doctrines of the abolitionists too, and believed they were leading towards the dissolution of the union. He desired gradual emancipation, and along with it the return of the negroes to Africa. His aim was to deliver his country from the taint of slavery; but he would effect that great revolution step by step, as the country could bear it. At every crisis he was ready with a compromise. His proposals soothed the angry passions which were aroused when Missouri sought admission into the Union. His, too, was that unhappy compromise, one feature of which was the Fugitive Slave Bill. If compromise could have averted strife, Henry Clay would have saved his country. But the conflict was irrepressible.

The slave-power grew very bold during the later years of its existence. The re-opening of the slave-trade became one of the questions of the day in the Southern States. The Governor of South Carolina expressly recommended this measure. Southern newspapers supported it. Southern ruffians actually accomplished it. Numerous cargoes of slaves were landed in the South in open defiance of law, and the outrage was unrebuked.

Political conventions voted their approval of the traffic. Associations were formed to promote it. Agricultural societies offered prizes for the best specimens of newly imported live Africans. It was even proposed that a prize should be offered for the best sermon in favour of the slave- trade Advertisements like this were frequent in Southern newspapers—"For sale, four hundred negroes, lately landed on the coast of Texas." It was possible to do such things then. A little later—in the days of Abraham Lincoln—a certain ruffianly Captain Gordon made the perilous experiment of bringing a cargo of slaves to New York. He was seized, and promptly hanged. There was no further attempt to revive the slave-trade. Thus appropriately was this hideous traffic closed.


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