Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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Why was the Underground Railroad such a threat to sectional harmony after 1830?

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The Underground Railroad wasn't so much a threat to national harmony as to the artificial compromises that had been carefully cobbled together over a number of years between North and South. The truth was that no one in the American political class was really willing or able to confront the problems of slavery head on. Instead, they came up with ever more ingenious ways of avoiding taking the necessary hard decisions, while at the same time congratulating themselves on keeping the Union together.

The existence of the Underground Railroad, however, was a timely reminder that the issue of slavery wasn't just political, but moral. Whatever compromises may have been reached among politicians were completely irrelevant to those slaves willing to risk their necks by embarking on their dangerous, clandestine journeys to freedom. So long as they were prepared to do this, no one could feel secure that harmony between North and South, such as it was, would prevail forever.

The Underground Railroad ought to have alerted the political classes to the fact that slavery was a running sore in American politics that needed to be properly dealt with. But because the overriding consensus, North and South, was to maintain some degree of harmony, however artificial, this never happened, with tragic consequences for the nation.

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If the Underground Railroad really was a threat to sectional harmony, it was a threat because it helped slaves escape from the South.  This angered Southerners and made Northerners feel more negatively towards the South.

Southerners would have felt that the Underground Railroad was an illegal organization meant to deprive them of their rightful property.  After all, slavery was legal in the United States and their slaves were legally their property.  The Underground Railroad, then, was an organization (of sorts) whose only purpose was to make slaveowners lose property that was legally theirs.  In a sense, this was like an organized crime ring that was stealing from the people who owned slaves.  The Southerners would have been very angry that Northerners were willing to help steal their property and they would have been angry that Northerners approved of the Underground Railroad.

From the Northern point of view, the Southern reaction to the Underground Railroad would have shown the evils of slavery.  Many Northerners were not really against slavery, but they did seem to believe that it was understandable that slaves would want to escape.  As we see in the reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Northerners were angered at the idea that slaves who had escaped to the North could be taken back into slavery.  It seemed heartless and evil to do this.  Therefore, when the Southerners got mad about the Underground Railroad, it made them look worse in the eyes of the North.

In this way, the presence of the Underground Railroad caused (at least arguably) greater tensions between the North and the South.

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