Harriet Tubman and the Search for Freedom Beyond American Borders

How the Underground Railroad laid tracks to Mexico.

Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

The decision to replace former President Andrew Jackson’s image on the $20 bill with the abolition activist Harriet Tubman may seem like a turn inward, away from the foreign-policy-focused presidents and statesmen who have graced U.S. currency since the early 20th century. But Tubman’s role in a network that moved people to freedom in British colonial Canada was part of a broader struggle between competing visions of American foreign policy, among those who saw the hemisphere as a battleground for slavery, or for freedom.

Tubman was born in the early 1820s, in a period of forced migration known as the Second Middle Passage, when about a million Black people were trafficked from the older, coastal states to fertile, cotton-growing land taken from Native Americans in the new Louisiana Territory. There, they were sold down the river to the Deep South: Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.

Amid this context of continental forced migration of millions of people, Tubman’s work in the 1850s on the Underground Railroad, helping between 70 and 300 enslaved people travel in the opposite direction, to freedom, may seem small. But her efforts were important in part because they were an exceptional example of a decision—whether to attempt to seek freedom elsewhere—that many thousands of individuals had to make in different ways throughout the first half of the 19th century. Canada was only one of the possible destinations. Liberia, Haiti, Spanish Florida, Central America, and Mexico were among the places that Black Americans migrated to freedom and a better life before the Civil War.

While the Second Middle Passage moved enslaved people to new U.S. territories in the South, some American politicians debated the merits of moving others to new colonies for freed people. The American Colonization Society, an organization that believed that it was not possible or desirable for Black and White people to live together, founded the colony of Liberia in West Africa. It was hoped that the new settlement of Black Americans would promote American values, in particular Christianity and plantation capitalism, but with free Black labor, rather than slavery. Emigration to Liberia was never particularly popular among Black Americans, in part because of the implications inherent in colonization arguments that free Black people were not “real Americans,” but for many who were released from slavery conditionally on their emigration, there was little choice.

Other destinations were more popular. Haiti, the first independent Black-led republic, was initially promising. But a large emigration project funded by Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer failed when the emigrants faced extreme hardship—drought, famine, and smallpox epidemic—that made it difficult to establish farms and access work. Throughout the early 1830s, the abolitionist Benjamin Lundy advocated the establishment of a colony in Tamaulipas, Mexico, south of the Mexican territory of Texas, which would be settled by 250 free colonists, both white and Black. Lundy’s plan, like the colonization of Liberia, was put forward as a conscious challenge to slavery’s expansion. He had been granted land to try to establish plantations for cotton, sugar, and other commodities to prove that free labor was just as able to grow these crops as enslaved labor, and therefore that enslaved labor was not necessary to the continued success of the American economy.

For the growing numbers of enslaved people in the Deep South, Canada was not an option.

Worsening conditions from the 1830s for Black people, both enslaved and free, reignited Black initiatives for migration as well. Laws preventing the ownership of property, or banning free Black people, or removing civic rights, were brought into force in all regions of the country, making living conditions for free Black people increasingly untenable. From the colonial period, both enslaved fugitive and free Black Americans had settled North America beyond the bounds of the United States—in places like Spanish Florida among the Seminoles, or in rural Appalachia. Canada was an obvious route for those in northern or border states, but for the growing numbers of enslaved people in the Deep South, Canada was not an option.

In 1832, the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator printed a letter from an unnamed free Black woman in Philadelphia advocating migration to Mexico. She wrote that Mexico would be a haven where the rights of Black people would not be “continually trampled upon,” where “our worth will be felt and acknowledged.” Mexico, which still included territory stretching from Texas to California, had freed the last of its remaining enslaved population in 1829. For many enslaved people in the Deep South, Mexico was a far easier route to escape than attempting to flee to northern states or Canada. And unlike northern states, where slave catchers were not typically prevented from reenslaving people, historians have found that attempts to track down people fleeing from slavery into Mexico were often stymied.

And so Black people followed the advice of the Philadelphia woman and went to Mexico. Men like the 35-year-old Beverly, who escaped from Louisiana through Texas; or Elijah and Zeb, who left Arkansas, whose owner believed they were traveling through Texas to “go among the wild Indians.” And just like the northern Underground Railroad, those fleeing to Mexico also relied on help from strangers. One reward notice for six men who had fled three different plantations together noted that they were headed toward Mexico with a Mexican guide. But free Black people also moved there, opening businesses, learning Spanish, and becoming citizens. William Leidesdorff Jr., a free Black businessman, left New Orleans for Mexico and became a citizen in 1844. But it wasn’t long before the vast swaths of Mexican territory offering freedom and opportunity for Black Americans began to shrink.

Hemispheric ambitions had been part of American foreign policy since the Revolution. Pro-slavery proponents like Jackson’s vice president, John Calhoun, had argued for territorial acquisitions and hemispheric policies in defense of slavery in places like Cuba and Brazil. The Louisiana Purchase in 1804, the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, and the acquisition of Eastern Florida by President John Quincy Adams (then secretary of state) were used to expand and defend American slavery within the hemisphere. Mexico was next.

Jackson was enthusiastic about white American migration to the Mexican territory of Texas, which he hoped to purchase. Expansionist Southerners had been clamoring for access to new lands. Cotton planting had exhausted the soil in the East. Texas settlement could open up new land for cotton, but Mexican abolition in 1829 threatened this plan. When Jackson’s friend Sam Houston led an armed movement for Texas independence in 1835, he expanded the frontier of slavery, putting safety in Mexico a bit further out of reach—just beyond the Rio Grande—for those fleeing along this southern Underground Railroad.

Even with rapidly growing numbers of enslaved people being moved to the territory, though, an independent Republic of Texas was an unstable defender of slavery. The new Republic faced potential pressure from London to abolish the slave trade and the use of enslaved labor. Britain’s foreign policy was expressly, and often forcefully, antislavery. The threat of British interference in part prompted President James Polk’s intervention and annexation of Texas, the act that ultimately led to the Mexican-American War in 1846-48. The war was fiercely opposed by abolitionists who saw it as another victory for the expansion of slave territory in North America, and slavery’s grip on the United States.

By the 1850s, when Tubman was taking people to freedom from Maryland, Canada was increasingly appealing because of the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Act, as part of the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise attempted to reconcile the pro- and antislavery demands regarding the vast territorial gains that had accompanied victory in the Mexican-American War. California would be admitted as a free state, Texas as a slave state. Meanwhile, the Fugitive Slave Act applied the laws of slave-holding states to the whole country, effectively forcing states where slavery was illegal to recognize enslaved status. Free Black Americans living near the border of slave states were particularly vulnerable to capture and enslavement. Stories of the successful escapes of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs were counterbalanced by stories of captured free people, like Henrietta Wood in Ohio or Solomon Northrup in New York. The reach of slavery into “free” territory even within the United States made Canada—and the muscle of the antislavery British Empire—the best hope for securing freedom.

Returning repeatedly to Maryland to escort others to their freedom was an extraordinary act of bravery.

This makes Tubman’s work in the 1850s all the more remarkable. She could have traveled to safety in Canada herself, or sought out opportunities in Liberia. Staying in Philadelphia and returning repeatedly to Maryland to escort others to their freedom was an extraordinary act of bravery.

The Underground Railroad was one of a variety of paths to freedom, many of which were gradually closed down by the relentless expansion of slavery promoted by people like Jackson. Tubman’s individual efforts helped many Americans come to understand the lengths that Black people were driven to in order to ensure their freedom, on paths that took them beyond the borders of the United States.

Bronwen Everill is a lecturer in history and fellow of Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge. Most recently, she is the author of Not Made by Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition. Twitter: @bronweneverill