Book of the week
The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War
Though Andrew Delbanco’s new history of the run-up to the Civil War is “a truly great book,” one reads it with “rising horror,” said Alan Jacobs in The Weekly Standard. The Columbia University historian forces us to look directly at our young nation’s original sin—slavery—and imagine what it was like to witness and recognize its evil effects in real time when easily half your fellow citizens were blind to that evil. In Delbanco’s telling, the problem of runaway slaves exposed a profound division in the country that existed from the nation’s founding. While the South had no monopoly on racism, it’s unlikely there ever would have been a “United States” if Northerners hadn’t accepted a clause in the Constitution establishing that no slave could escape slavery by fleeing to a free state. And then the compromises got worse.
Little of the information revisited by The War Before the War is new, said Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times. “The light it sheds, however, most definitely is.” How and when, after all, should a nominally united people reconcile irreconcilable values? And when is compromise wise and when is it cowardice? Congress’ passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it difficult for white Northerners to ignore the costs of compromise, because it obliged them to turn in runaways. Because it also denied captives normal trial rights, it also made free blacks vulnerable to slave catchers. The strength of Delbanco’s book lies in its evocation of the human cost of these policies, said David S. Reynolds in The Wall Street Journal. Though he includes many “thrilling” escape-and-rescue episodes, he also shares stunning tragedies. One fugitive slave, Margaret Garner, slit her 2-year-old’s throat rather than allow the girl to be captured and returned to slavery.
Delbanco remains “keenly aware” that Americans of 1850 didn’t know what we know: that slavery could be eradicated, said Gordon S. Wood in The New Republic. The South was an economic power and was seeking to spread slavery across the growing nation. No one could predict which side would prevail in an armed conflict. In such circumstances, was it better to advocate for abolition even through bloodshed, as William Lloyd Garrison did, or to work to preserve the union and contain slavery, as Sen. Daniel Webster did? It would be easy to disparage all compromisers, but Delbanco doesn’t. He has “too subtle a sensibility, too fine an appreciation of the tragedy of life for that crude kind of history writing.” ■