Recently I was attending a luncheon and presentation, and the discussion at our table while we were eating turned to the divisiveness of our national politics.
“It’s not unlike the 1850s,” I said, “when any hope of a national consensus ran up against the reality of slavery. The anger and outrage began to mount, fueled by wildly different understandings of slavery in the territories, Bleeding Kansas and Nebraska, the 1857 Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.”
“We know where that led,” said one man at the table. “I wonder how many people actually saw the Civil War coming until it was there.”
My comment was prompted by a book I’d been reading. The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War by Andrew Delbanco uses the issue of fugitive slaves from 1776 to 1860 to explain a considerable amount of American history and how that history turned to the bloodiest conflict the country has ever experienced.
Early on, Delbanco acknowledges a significant problem in understanding and interpreting history – that many things are clear only in hindsight. When you’re living through divisive times, it’s rarely clear to see where events are going. It’s also tempting to compare something like the slavery issue to contemporary events, like immigration (legal and otherwise) or gender issues. While the author occasionally slips into that with an offhand comment or two, he largely avoids it.
Where he focuses his narrative is how various documents, laws, and political debates were shaped by and dealt with the ongoing issue of fugitive slaves. That’s the lens. The issue of fugitive slaves kept the political pot boiling. It was there in the debates about the U.S. Constitution, the compromises of 1820 and 1850, the Mexican War, and various congressional proposals to deal with the slave trade and the practice of slavery. The problem for the abolitionists was that slavery was embedded in the Constitution, and it wasn’t going to be possible to get around that reality with a large block of (Southern and Middle) states dependent upon the use of slave labor.
The author tells a good story and a compelling one. He tracks how the issue grew in intensity, and what role writers did and didn’t play. He goes into great detail of how fugitive slaves became a literary sub-genre, what was happening in northern state courts, and the growth of first-person accounts of slavery. He concentrates on original sources – articles, novels, magazine and newspaper accounts, letters, broadsides, court decisions, and records of congressional debates.
The book also does something unexpected. Abolitionist actions and victories weren’t always unequivocally in the best interests of fugitive slaves; racism existed on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. He tells the story of a 6-year-old Louisiana slave girl named Med, who was brought to Boston in 1836 by a woman visiting her father. The woman became ill, leaving the girl under her father’s protection. A local anti-slavery society heard about the girl and sued, challenging the right of the man top keep her. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that because slavery was forbidden in the state, the girl had to be released, and she was handed over to the custody of the anti-slavery society. The society promptly turned around and placed her in an orphanage.
Delbanco is the author numerous works on history and literary studies, including The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope; Melville: His World and Work; The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil; The Puritan Ordeal; The Abolitionist Imagination; Writing New England; and others. He is the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University. He’s received a number of awards and recognitions, including the National Humanities Medal in 2012.
Reading a contemporary book about 19thcentury history can be worrisome, if only because so much history is being reinterpreted to align with today’s political issues. In The War Before the War, Delbanco, by relying so heavily on original sources and taking a largely evenhanded approach, avoids that problem. Yes, he has a perspective, but he allows the people of the time – slaves, fugitive slaves, writers, politicians, judges, slaveowners, and abolitionists – to speak for themselves.
Top illustration: A Ride for Liberty, oil on canvas (1863) by Eastman Johnson; Brooklyn Museum of Art.