Lincoln freed the slaves. Or was it Harriet Tubman?
Today, the Underground Railroad is known as a sideshow in the story of how slavery ended in the United States. The two main events were the Civil War and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. But the Underground Railroad deserves equal status. Without it, those other two main events would never have happened.
The North was overwhelmingly against slavery and opposed its spread to the West, but did not favor ending slavery in the South by force. The Underground Railroad changed that. The South sent armed agents into the North to bring back escaped slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 compelled government officials in the North to help the slave-catchers.
It was a mini-invasion, armed and dangerous, throughout the North. And the North did not like it. Officials began to break the law by refusing to aid the Southern slave-catchers. And gangs of Northerners forcibly prevented the slave-catchers from taking their prey. These were the first skirmishes, North vs. South, over slavery.
Without the Underground Railroad, the North would have been content with the status quo: freedom in the North, slavery in the South, and ongoing wrangling over the new states of the West. It was the outrage over slavers invading the North that turned the tide of public opinion in favor of ending slavery in the South.
Harriet Tubman was the most prominent conductor of the Underground Railroad, and during the Civil War she led armed raids in Southern states to free slaves as the Union army swept through. As President, Lincoln had the power to end slavery by force. Tubman used what force she had to do her part. Millions of others took part as well.
But if you had to name which individuals were most responsible for freeing the slaves in the United States, Lincoln and Tubman are right at the top of the list.