When Freeing the Slaves Was Illegal: “Reverse-Trafficking” and the Unholy, Unruly Rule of Law

Reference work entry


During nineteenth century, when racialized chattel slavery in the United States was at its peak, a form of abolitionism known as the Underground Railroad emerged to challenge what had been firmly established in American society through what the author calls an unholy, unruly rule of law. This was slaveholder law, and it had evolved over several centuries – haphazardly at first, and as abolitionism began to take hold, out of desperation – to protect the interests of slaveholders at the expense of millions of enslaved African Americans.

The Underground Railroad was a clandestine, loosely organized network of men and women, black and white, who risked social censure, imprisonment, injury, and even death in their efforts to aid and abet thousands of fugitive slaves escaping from enforced bondage. Acts of slave-hunting, recapture, transportation, and re-enslavement of fugitive slaves – akin to what we know as illegal trafficking today – were then perfectly legal. By contrast, acts of assistance to people escaping from bondage into freedom – akin to the work of human rights and anti-trafficking activists today – were illegal and hence incredibly risky for all concerned. Participants in the Underground Railroad therefore knowingly broke the rule of law through deliberate acts of civil disobedience, a collective act of resistance the like of which would not be seen in the United States for over 100 years.

Thus, the Underground Railroad turns our understanding of human trafficking, as well as our understanding of the rule of law, upside down.


Slavery Slaveholding Abolitionism Human rights Human rights activism Human trafficking The Underground Railroad The rule of law 


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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer International Publishing AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent ScholarEssexUK

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