The war before the war Fugitive slaves and the struggle for America's soul from the Revolution to the Civil War

Andrew Delbanco, 1952-

Book - 2018

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.

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New York : Penguin Press 2018.
Physical Description
453 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages [397]-441) and index.
Main Author
Andrew Delbanco, 1952- (author)
Review by Booklist Reviews

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. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

That slaves repeatedly fled north to freedom showed the hollowness of America's stance as free and united. Even more contradictory and ultimately divisive: the Fugitive Slave Act compelling the return to Southerners of their so-called property. Leading scholar Delbanco, awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2012, considers the implementation and consequences of the act. Copyright 2018 Library Journal.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

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 Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

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 2018 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

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.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

Argues that issues surrounding fugitive slaves is what truly drove the North and South to Civil War and explains the history behind how this happened.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

"Excellent...stunning."'ta-Nehisi CoatesThe devastating story of how fugitive slaves drove the nation to Civil WarA New York Times Notable Book Selection * Winner of the Mark Lynton History Prize* Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award * A New York Times Critics' Best Book 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.