Justice  /  Book Excerpt

The Underground Railroad Was the Ultimate Conspiracy to Southern Enslavers

And justified the most extreme responses.

If there was a single term to describe the mood in the South in the years leading up to the Civil War, it was “paranoid.” Southern enslavers feared abolitionists, and they feared those they enslaved. They lived in a state of perpetual terror, albeit one that could never be openly referenced. The “peculiar institution” depended on a peculiar kind of denial, one in which the grossly unnatural condition of bondage had to be misrecognized as a benign, divinely sanctioned institution. Southerners reassured themselves that they treated the people they kept in bondage well, and, as such, the enslaved had no cause to complain, and were even happy in their lot. The absurdity of such a position only reinforced its absolute necessity.

Contrary to the stories enslavers would tell themselves, that Black men and women were happy being enslaved, escapes were so common that printers sold stereotype “runaway slave” icons to newspapers to be used in classified ads by enslavers. There was even a “medical” term for the desire to escape: drapetomania. The reality was obvious everywhere you looked, but no one could name it outright. As a result, the South became infused with, and ultimately gripped by, conspiracy theories—conspiracy theories that were born out of attempts to explain away this obvious discrepancy. If enslaved people were naturally happy being in bondage, as Southerners anxiously tried to tell themselves, then their desire to run away must be the result of external provocations.

In an 1835 speech, future president and Virginian John Tyler captured much of the prevailing sense of paranoia and fear of the day. “The unexpected evil is now upon us,” he cried; “it has invaded our firesides, and under our own roofs is sharpening the dagger for midnight assassination, and exciting cruelty and bloodshed.” Men like Arthur Tappan and William Lloyd Garrison had perverted the post office to their ends, and they hid behind religion in an attempt to foment anarchy. With an abuser’s logic, Tyler argued that abolitionists were not “friends” to enslaved Americans but their “enemies,” since their agitations drove enslavers to crack down harshly on those in bondage. Even worse, for Tyler, was the number of women who seemed to have joined the crusade: “woman is to be made the instrument of destroying our political paradise, the Union of these States,” he lamented; “she is to be made the presiding genius over the councils of insurrection and civil discord.” For not only were women joining the abolitionist crusade to divide the Union, they were indoctrinating their children, so now “the youthful imagination is filled with horror against us and our children by images and pictures exhibited in the nursery.”