Professor’s Book About Underground Railroad Sheds Light on Culture of Violence

Robert Churchill
Traditional stories about the Underground Railroad portray the white abolitionists as the heroes who protected runaway slaves from the slave catchers as they headed north. Others have claimed that the fugitives did all the work and received little assistance from anyone. In his latest book, The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America, (Cambridge University Press, 2020), Hillyer College Professor of History, and noted historian of American political violence, Robert Churchill, examines the role geography and violence play in the narrative of the Underground Railroad. 

“The country, particularly the north, was grappling with a very particularly southern style of violence that was acted out by slave catchers when they came north to recover fugitives,” says Churchill. “There was a culture of honor in the south that dictates violent behaviors not found in the north.” He explains it as a very brutal and hyper masculine style that he terms the “violence of mastery,” or the violence it takes to assert oneself as a master over one human being.

Churchill says the narrow strip of territory north of the Mason Dixon line is where people, particularly those of southern origin, did not see the violence of mastery objectionable. But the further north one traveled, the norms of the violence of the south was not something that the slave catchers could get away with. 

“In the lower northern border states like Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, you have a very different culture,” explains Churchill. “One that is really emphasizing human dignity, one that emphasizes law and order. And one that sees this hyper masculine violence as boyish or as essentially an evidence of weakness.” He explains when slave catchers came into this middle region and took part in the violent behavior that they were accustomed to, there was a spectacular clash between the two cultures.

Churchill explains that border-state residents would say,”We have laws here. If you want to take a fugitive, you have to go before a judge. We have a sense of justice here and a sense of human dignity and due process.” He explained the community would rise up to defend and protect the fugitive.   

When the slave catchers traveled even further to the upper north, abolitionists sentiment was much broader there. “People were more intent on operating in the open,” he says. “They were almost boastful and talking with the newspapers about the fugitives who traveled through the week before.” Churchull  explains the people in the upper north region were embarrassed that fugitives were heading to Canada; “What they were trying to do is create free soil and a refuge for fugitives within the boundaries of the United States.”

Churchill says If you put the regional geography of violence together, suddenly the Underground Railroad starts to make a lot more sense. “Because it operated secretly at night and under an extreme threat of violence, the Underground Railroad of lore is really describing the southern borderland states.” 

In his next United States history book project, Churchill says he will examine how people in the north and south became mutually alienated before the Civil War, and given that, why peaceful succession failed and resulted in a war.

For Media Inquiries

Mary Ingarra