The Author’s Corner with Robert Churchill

The underground railroad and the geography of violenceRobert Churchill is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hartford. This interview is based on his new book, The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Underground Railroad?

RC: When writing my first book on the militia movement, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face, I came across some abolitionist responses to the rendition of Anthony Burns from Boston that argued that the state militia, rather than assisting Burn’s master in carrying Burns back to slavery, should have used force to release Burns and protect his liberty. Once the book was done, I began to read about the Underground Railroad, a movement by which I had long been fascinated, but which I realized I knew little about. Clearly Underground activists dedicated themselves to defying the law, in some cases by armed force, in support of what they saw as the higher cause of human freedom. How, I wondered, did the inhabitants of the North respond to this movement? How did those responses change over time?

As I began to read primary accounts of Underground operations, it became clear to me that violence was at the center of this story. Fugitives from enslavement fled the systemic violence embedded in the system of slavery and in the South’s culture of honor, a particular culture of violence that I refer to as the violence of mastery. That violence followed fugitives into the North, wielded by slave catchers who asserted a right to use whatever violence they saw fit to capture fugitives, intimidate sympathetic bystanders, retaliate against Underground activists, and carry African-Americans back to slavery.

How then did Northern residents and communities respond to this violence, which many found shocking and culturally alienating? It seemed to me that understanding these responses offered insights into the way the Underground Railroad operated and also into the politics of the fugitive slave issue and into the growth of sectional alienation. And the more I looked, the more it became clear that those responses followed a clear geographical pattern.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Underground Railroad?

RC: The Underground Railroad argues that the movement operated within a cultural geography of violence in which different regions of the North offered very different responses to the presence of fugitives and to the intrusions of slave catchers. These regions exhibited different cultural norms governing violence, and Underground activists adapted their organization and methods to these norms.

JF: Why do we need to read The Underground Railroad?

RC: The book offers insights into two questions that have bedeviled historians. It explains the remarkable regional variation in the organization and operation of the Underground movement. Historians have long noted the discrepancy between stories of tightly organized, stealthy nocturnal operations in some times and places and accounts of a much more open, even boastful approach in others. My analysis of the geography of violence explains these variations across time and place, and illuminates the Underground Railroad as a living organism responding to local stimuli. The focus on violence also explains why the sectional conflict over fugitive slaves proved so explosive and alienating. Shared norms of violence are fundamental to building and a sense of community. In discovering just how different their norms governing violence were, the North and the South began to view each other as fundamentally different peoples.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RC: I have known since high school that I wanted to be a history teacher. History just made sense to me, and I realized from tutoring my peers that I could explain it to others in a way that made it comprehensible. After college, I enrolled in a Masters in Teaching program and received certification as a public secondary school teacher. I then joined the faculty of Longmeadow High School in Longmeadow, MA. After four years, I decided that I wanted the chance to engage history on a deeper level, so I returned to graduate school and received my Ph.D. in early American history from Rutgers University.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: The Underground Railroad describes a process of sectional alienation. This leads to a fundamental question: given that by 1860 both the North and the South had in essence given up on each other, why did the project of peaceful secession fail? This is a question that rarely gets addressed in the narrative of American history, in which war seems to follow naturally from secession. But clearly there were some, and perhaps many, in the North who were willing to contemplate parting with the South. What deprived this option of a hearing? And, given the South’s actions during the secession winter of 1860-1861, was peaceful secession in fact their objective? In answering these questions, I hope to undertake a much more complete assessment of Northern public opinion than has been offered up to now, and I hope to investigate where peaceful secession stood vs. the lure of a “short victorious war” in the preferences of Southern policy makers.

JF: Thanks, Robert!