In This Review

South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War
South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War
By Alice L. Baumgartner
Basic Books, 2020, 384 pp

Baumgartner is a rising star in an emerging generation of historians who focus on the social forces underlying political conflict. Their narratives tend to be less interested in conquering generals than in humble rebels, and their analyses transcend national borders to reveal wider dramas. Baumgartner links the antebellum conflicts between Mexico and Texas—and eventually the United States—to the question of slavery. She reverses the contemporary narrative that assumes U.S. norms and institutions are superior: in the mid-nineteenth century, Mexico was a safe haven for fugitives fleeing oppression, and the Mexican constitution was more consistent in defending universal rights than were U.S. laws. Mexico destabilized the American South when it outlawed slavery in 1829, encouraging runaway slaves to flee southward. New antislavery “free-soil” states in the American Southwest carved out of Mexico after the Mexican-American War threatened southern power in the U.S. Congress. Baumgartner points out that the Texan defenders of the Alamo were at least as intent on protecting their right to own slaves from Mexican abolitionists as they were on safeguarding their own liberty. As ideologies transcended borders, the great secular, liberal Mexican reformer and eventual president Benito Juárez and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln negotiated an extradition treaty in 1861 that explicitly prohibited the return of fugitive slaves.