Fergus Bordewich: Well, there was a variety of things that inspired the abolitionist movement. The first organized body Americans to oppose slavery were Quakers; the Society of Friends. Later on in the nineteenth century they were joined by people coming out of other churches; Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists. The Quakers, I should say, began organizing against slavery in the mid-eighteenth century, even in the colonial period, and were often the leaders of early anti-slavery organizations.

There I’m just talking about white Americans. Black Americans, in a sense, were always anti-slavery. People who were themselves coming out of slavery [and] had family members who were enslaved. The anti-slavery movement as a whole, but much more particularly its cutting-edge, its radical activist wing, the Underground Railroad, functioned and succeeded because of the synergy amongst both white and black Americans.

The Underground Railroad has to be understood as the first bi-racial political movement in American history. It was always integrated. The Underground Railroad was in many areas organized, led, [and] sometimes financed by African Americans. We’re talking about the inspiration of people. For most white Americans the inspiration came from religious faith. Indeed, it’s best to understand the Underground Railroad as an expression of religion; as part of a religious movement, a spiritual movement, rather than a political one. It becomes political only as you get closer to the Civil War. After the 1830s the Evangelical revival of the early 19th century turbocharged abolitionism. It brought a passionate religious fervency to anti-slavery activity. I’m convinced that for most white activists in the Underground Railroad tended to see underground activity as prayer in action; living out their religion by fighting the sin of slavery.

Feeding into their motivation as well were the enlightenment ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the whole cluster of more secular ideas of political liberation that became popularized around the time of the American Revolution and in the early Republic. You had a religious inspiration and you had also an idealistic philosophical inspiration as well. African Americans who by and large, with few exceptions, didn’t have the privilege of being educated as white Americans did, but none the less understood slavery first hand, didn’t really need to go through the medium of theology in order to become anti-slavery. Again, and again, and again, in the narratives left by former slavers, and there are many of them, people describe their personal, visceral hatred of slavery and their motivation to do abolitionist work as a profound, personal craving to bring freedom to other people who are still enslaved.