Cover image for The war before the war : fugitive slaves and the struggle for America's soul from the Revolution to the Civil War
Title:
The war before the war : fugitive slaves and the struggle for America's soul from the Revolution to the Civil War
ISBN:
9781594204050
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Penguin Press, 2018.
Physical Description:
453 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Contents:
Part one: The long fuse. The problem ; Slavery and the Founders ; A compromised Constitution ; The first test ; Caught ; War of words ; Into the courts -- Part two: The fuse is lit. To the brink ; State of the Union ; The last truce ; Explosion ; Trials of conscience ; The end of compromise ; "And the war came".
Summary:
Explains how fugitive slaves escaping from the South to the northern states awakened northerners to the true nature of slavery and how the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act divided the nation and set it on the path to civil war.

"For decades after its founding, America was really two nations--one slave, one free. There were many reasons why this composite nation ultimately broke apart, but the fact that enslaved black people repeatedly risked their lives to flee their masters in the South in search of freedom in the North proved that the "united" states was actually a lie. Fugitive slaves exposed the contradiction between the myth that slavery was a benign institution and the reality that a nation based on the principle of human equality was in fact a prison house in which millions of Americans had no rights at all. By awakening northerners to the true nature of slavery, and by enraging southerners who demanded the return of their human "property," fugitive slaves forced the nation to confront the truth about itself. By 1850, with America on the verge of collapse, Congress reached what it hoped was a solution--the notorious Compromise of 1850, which required that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters. Like so many political compromises before and since, it was a deal by which white Americans tried to advance their interests at the expense of black Americans. Yet the Fugitive Slave Act, intended to preserve the Union, in fact set the nation on the path to civil War. It divided not only the American nation but also the hearts and minds of Americans who struggled with the timeless problem of when to submit to an unjust law and when to resist. The fugitive slave story illuminates what brought us to War with ourselves and the terrible legacies of slavery that are with us still."--Dust jacket.
Language Note:
Text in English.
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Summary

Summary

A New York Times Critics' Best Book of 2018

The devastating story of how fugitive slaves drove the nation to Civil War

For decades after its founding, America was really two nations--one slave, one free. There were many reasons why this composite nation ultimately broke apart, but the fact that enslaved black people repeatedly risked their lives to flee their masters in the South in search of freedom in the North proved that the "united" states was actually a lie. Fugitive slaves exposed the contradiction between the myth that slavery was a benign institution and the reality that a nation based on the principle of human equality was in fact a prison-house in which millions of Americans had no rights at all. By awakening northerners to the true nature of slavery, and by enraging southerners who demanded the return of their human "property," fugitive slaves forced the nation to confront the truth about itself.

By 1850, with America on the verge of collapse, Congress reached what it hoped was a solution-- the notorious Compromise of 1850, which required that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters. Like so many political compromises before and since, it was a deal by which white Americans tried to advance their interests at the expense of black Americans. Yet the Fugitive Slave Act, intended to preserve the Union, in fact set the nation on the path to civil war. It divided not only the American nation, but also the hearts and minds of Americans who struggled with the timeless problem of when to submit to an unjust law and when to resist.

The fugitive slave story illuminates what brought us to war with ourselves and the terrible legacies of slavery that are with us still.


Author Notes

Andrew Delbanco is the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University. Author of many notable books, including College, Melville, The Death of Satan, Required Reading, The Real American Dream, and The Puritan Ordeal, he was recently appointed president of the Teagle Foundation, which supports liberal education for college students of all backgrounds. Winner of the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates, he is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. In 2001, Andrew Delbanco was named by Time as "America's Best Social Critic." In 2012, President Barack Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal.


Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Delbanco, an American studies professor at Columbia University, follows up 2012's The Abolitionist Imagination with a more in-depth look at the divisive effects of slavery on America. He argues that the problem of "fugitive slaves"-the Constitution included a clause establishing the rights of slave holders to recover escaped slaves-brought slavery into sharp relief, contributing to the inevitability of the Civil War. He writes that well-publicized recaptures of escaped enslaved people kept the evils of slavery front and center for Northerners (who, he points out, were often as racist as Southerners though they opposed slavery), and Northern efforts to block the return of the South's most valuable properties kept slavery at the forefront of Southern consciousness. Delbanco's strength is in making accessible to modern readers the arguments of the Southern advocates for slavery and Northern abolitionists. He examines court cases, including the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring that no slave had "rights which the white man was bound to respect"; books, including Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; and the political and legislative strategies of both Northern and Southern leaders (insightfully drawing parallels to 21st-century political rhetoric). This well-documented and valuable work makes clear how slavery shaped the early American experience with effects that reverberate today. Agent: Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, William Morris Endeavor. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

Distinguished professor of American Studies at Columbia Delbanco (The Abolitionist Imagination , 2012) examines the untenable paradox of America's founding on democracy and liberty and dependence on slavery through the stories of those who resisted enslavement by attempting to escape. Delbanco traces the crafting of and attempts to enforce Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution, known as the fugitive slave clause, which criminalized the sheltering of fugitive slaves and called on local authorities to help return them to slavers. This meant that even free black people in the North including those who had never been enslaved found their lives infused with terror of being seized and deported. In 1853, the story of a free black New Yorker kidnapped in 1841 in Washington, D.C., was published as Twelve Years a Slave, one of a number of narratives by individuals who tried to escape slavery that Delbanco discusses. His history also covers court battles and the support of abolitionist sympathizers. Delbanco provides a fresh and illuminating look at those who held fast to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in unspeakably oppressive and brutal times.--Grace Jackson-Brown Copyright 2018 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

the civil war began over one basic issue : Was slavery, the ownership of human beings, a legitimate national institution, fixed in national law by the United States Constitution? One half of the country said it was, the other said it was not. The ensuing conflict was the chief instigator of Southern secession, as the secessionists themselves proclaimed. It was thus the chief source of the war that led to slavery's abolition in the United States. The struggle over property in slaves focused largely on the fate of the Western territories, but it also inflamed conflicts over the status of fugitive slaves. Pro-slavery Southerners insisted that the federal government was obliged to capture slaves who had escaped to free states and return them to their masters, and thus vindicate the masters' absolute property rights in humans. Antislavery Northerners, denying that obligation and those supposed rights, saw the fugitives as heroic refugees from bondage, and resisted federal interference fiercely and sometimes violently. Even more than the fights over the territories, Andrew Delbanco asserts in "The War Before the War," the "dispute over fugitive slaves ... launched the final acceleration of sectional estrangement." Delbanco, an eminent and prolific scholar of American literature, is well suited to recounting this history, and not just because fugitive slaves have been a subject of American fiction from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Toni Morrison and beyond. A traditional critic in the historicist mode, Delbanco has always thoughtfully rendered the contexts in which his writers wrote. He has offered fresh interpretations not only of how national politics shaped the writing of, say, "Moby-Dick," but also of what Melville's tragic awareness and moral ambiguities tell us about the temper of a nation hurtling toward civil war. Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne, as well as Melville, Stowe and numerous lesser artists and thinkers of the time, all had pertinent if sometimes cursory and not always pleasing things to say about fugitive slaves. Delbanco's incisive analyses of their observations - and, just as important, of their failure to observe - form one of his book's running themes. Delbanco's skills as a literary critic also illuminate the contributions fugitive slaves made to the growing antislavery movement. Although the number of fugitives was relatively small - according to an 1850 survey, only about 1,000 per year reached the North - they disproportionally aggravated the sectional divide. In part, Delbanco argues, the runaways were a continuing symbolic insult to the slaveholders' honor, as their flight contradicted Southern claims that slavery was a benevolent, paternalist institution. (He might have added that the fugitive slave issue became an effective and distracting wedge for pro-slavery extremists, who deployed it to appeal to conservative Northerners by provoking antislavery radicals to violent paroxysms while playing the victim themselves.) More important, scores of fugitive slaves either wrote or dictated their personal experiences in widely read narratives, most famously the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," which awakened Northern whites to the enormity of Southern slavery. To his credit, Delbanco does not inflate the literary merits of the slave narratives. Often filtered through the sensibilities of collaborating abolitionists, they amounted, Delbanco writes, to "more than propaganda and less than literature." (Douglass's narrative was an exception and two or three others were at least partial exceptions.) But there is no denying the sensation they caused amid the political emergencies of the 1840s and 1850s, "giving voice to people long silenced," and assailing the pro-slavery propaganda that sustained Northern white complacency. Delbanco's literary judgments aside, "The War Before the War" is mainly a straightforward account of events that, although familiar to professional historians, ought to be known by anyone who claims to know anything about American history. In 1787, Southern delegates to the federal Constitutional Convention obtained a fugitive slave clause that called for (albeit vaguely) the capture and return of successful runaways. Over the following six decades, persistent slave escapes tested the ramshackle machinery put in place to halt them. In time, alarmed but emboldened Northern free blacks and their white abolitionist allies formed vigilance committees to ward off slavecatchers, while Northern legislatures began approving socalled personal liberty laws to shield the fugitives. in 1850, responding to slaveholders' outcries, Congress passed a Fugitive Slave Act that strengthened the federal mandate for arresting and returning escapees. In a series of shocking confrontations, antislavery Northerners intervened, either to prevent the capture of fugitives or liberate those already in custody. The uproar of these pitched battles - Delbanco's war before the war - helped turn Northern moderates into abolitionists and temperate Southerners into fire-eaters; at its height in 1854, it prompted President Franklin Pierce to order 1,500 federal troops to escort a single fugitive in Boston named Anthony Burns back into slavery in Virginia. Enforcing the fugitive slave law put the federal government emphatically on the side of slavery over freedom, which hastened the collapse of the national political system, the rise of the antislavery Republican Party and the coming of the war. Delbanco aims to balance his antislavery allegiances with caution about the smugness that can come with historical hindsight. In some of his earlier writings, this wariness has led him, by my taste, to be a little too charitable to revisionist interpretations that present the Civil War as a product of political failure, a catastrophe, instigated by malcontents, that a more responsible national leadership could have prevented. This view has arisen from an admixture of pacifism and an insistence on diminishing the moral as well as political disaster of slavery; and it has sometimes led its advocates to demonize the abolitionists as the chief fomenters of an unnecessary war. As Delbanco admires the abolitionists, and slights slavery's terrors not at all, his occasional revisionist musings seem to stem from his horror at the military slaughterhouse, his wonder at whether it could have been avoided and his wariness of sanctimony, including Yankee sanctimony. In this book, though, Delbanco sticks to viewing the war as the ghastly but necessary price for abolishing slavery - what Abraham Lincoln described in his Second Inaugural Address as cruel justice meted out by the Almighty. Delbanco now dispels sanctimony differently, by reviving forgotten figures such as the St. Louis minister and educator William Greenleaf Eliot - not coincidentally, T. S. Eliot's grandfather - who hated slavery but tolerated the fugitive slave law and, until the bitter end, held out hopes for a conciliatory gradual emancipation. History usually plows such people under as equivocators and worse. Delbanco restores to them their moral seriousness in brutally uncertain times. Over all, Delbanco's account is accurate as well as vivid (although I wish he hadn't garbled the details of the adoption of the fugitive slave clause in 1787, the book's most serious lapse). He makes a strong case for the centrality of the fugitive slaves to the sectional crisis; indeed, by emphasizing the symbolism of the issue, he may have slighted the importance of its political and legal aspects. Without question, he has once again written a valuable book, reflective as well as jarring, concerning the most violent and enduring conflict in American history. Antislavery Northerners saw fugitives as heroic refugees from bondage. SEAN wilentz teaches at Princeton. His latest book, "No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation's Founding," was published in September.


Library Journal Review

Delbanco's (American studies, Columbia Univ.; Melville) superb book tells the story of how the amalgamated country fractured between free and proslavery states. He concedes that there were multiple reasons, but one stands out as proof that the "united" states concept was a falsehood from the start: that enslaved bondsmen repeatedly fled their masters in search of freedom in the North. In the process, they described the evils of slavery to Northerners, all the while enraging Southerners who called for the return of their slaves. The author wins his point by showing that a growing number of Americans began to acknowledge that the nation was little more than a prison in which million of people had no rights at all. Delbanco demonstrates how a mushrooming tide of runaways incited conflict well before the Civil War. Several salient points of interest in his study include Lincoln's equivocation on the retention or abolishment of the Fugitive Slave Act as well as the war's bloody effect in driving the courses of union and emancipation toward convergence. VERDICT A paramount contribution to U.S. middle period historiography. Also recommended for both scholars and general readers of African American, Constitutional, and diplomatic history. [Prepub Alert, 5/21/18.]-John Carver Edwards, formerly with Univ. of Georgia Libs. © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
Part 1 The Long Fuse
1 The Problemp. 17
2 Slavery and the Foundersp. 43
3 A Compromised Constitutionp. 65
4 The First Testp. 85
5 Caughtp. 107
6 War of Wordsp. 134
7 Into the Courtsp. 164
Part 2 The Fuse Is Lit
8 To the Brinkp. 189
9 State of the Unionp. 220
10 The Last Trucep. 237
11 Explosionp. 262
12 Trials of Consciencep. 286
13 The End of Compromisep. 317
14 "And the War Came"p. 350
Acknowledgmentsp. 389
Illustrationsp. 393
Notesp. 397
Indexp. 443