Book Review The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War by Andrew Delbanco

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#21
Part 16:

The first capture of a black person occurred just eight days after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act went into effect. James Hamlet was picked up in a workplace raid in Brooklyn where he had been living without incident for two years. When Hamlet was taken into court he tried to contest his legalized kidnapping by saying that his mother was a free woman. However, the law blocked fugitives from testifying. He was shipped to a slave prison in Maryland. Before he was sold south, his church, the AME Zion Church of Brooklyn, raised money to free him through purchase. A large crowd celebrated his arrival back in New York. AME Zion is still a major congregation in Brooklyn.

Blacks in the city celebrated Hamlet's return, and took a lesson in fear from his capture. Harriet Jacobs wrote that “every colored person kept their eyes wide open, [and] examined the newspapers . . . to see what Southerners had put up at the hotels.” (p. 265).

The advent of the Fugitive Slave Law led many African Americans and abolitionists to reconsider their traditionally pacifist views on opposition to opposition to slavery. If a black was approached by a slave catcher, should he or she go meekly or treat the capturer as a kidnapper. Some began to preach that it was morally permissible to kill or injure a slave catcher to avoid enslavement.
 

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#22
Part 17:

After all of the struggle to pass the Fugitive Slave Act, you might wonder how effective the new law was. It certainly was effective in producing strife and hatred, as well as fear in Black communities. The year in which the most Blacks fell into the hands of slave catchers was 1851. That year 67 African Americans living in the North were captured. 59 of those men and women were sent back to slavery. Three were released and five were rescued by anti-slavery activists. And that was the best year for slave catchers.

Meanwhile, lukewarm abolitionists became militants, pledged to sacrifice their lives to stop the recapture of fugitives on Northern soil. The law captured few slaves but created thousands of anti-slavery militants.

The ineffectiveness of the new law strengthened the arguments of the Firebrands in the South who argued that the United States had become two countries and needed to break in half.
 

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Part 18:

Emerson called the Fugitive Slave law "a university to the people" in the wrongs of slavery. If the slave owners could force Northern public officials to violate their own consciences in enforcing the law, then their power over the North was immense. When some elected officials resigned rather than enforce the hateful law, Northern voters felt deprived of the services of good men because of the demands of slave owners. When Tom Kane resigned his public office rather than enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, his own father, who opposed slavery but believed in the law, sentenced his son to a year in jail. (p. 294)

Oblivious to the pain the act caused to black fugitives and white magistrates, Southern whites were incessantly critical of the Free States for refusing to assist with enslavement. Delbanco writes:

After the Civil War, Alexander Stephens, who had served as vice president of the Confederacy, wrote in his journal to much the same effect: “slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession,” and “out of it arose the breach of compact, for instance, on the part of several Northern States in refusing to comply with Constitutional obligations as to rendition of fugitives from service, a course betraying total disregard for all constitutional barriers and guarantees.” For both sides in the conflict, the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution and the notorious law by which the compromisers of 1850 had tried to enforce it only proved the futility of trying to meet the other side halfway. The final breakdown of comity—of a society in which “contending interests have a basic minimal regard for each other”—was at hand. (p. 348).
 

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#24
Conclusion:

This was a book that explored aspects of the decades leading up to the Civil War that I was not familiar with. The legal history was particularly new to me. While I found that fascinating, I am sure that others may not be as entranced with legal and legislative history.

A shortcoming of the book is the lack of a sustained focus on the fugitives themselves. I understand the severe limitations in sources for what the escaped slaves said and did, but the absences was felt nonetheless.

I think that this is an important book for looking at the ways that the actions of virtually unknown people, in this case fugitive slaves, can create circumstances that lead to historic changes. Delbanco writes:

THERE IS AN APHORISM attributed to Mark Twain (though no evidence exists that he ever said it) that while history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme. The fugitive slave story is a rhyming story. It is impossible to follow it without hearing echoes in our own time. It is about the breakup of the two major political parties in antebellum America. It is about the rise of what might be called the first Black Lives Matter movement, as black people in the North protested the outrage of slavery and stormed the jails where runaway slaves were held. It is about the establishment of “sanctuary cities” where fugitives—the undocumented immigrants of their time—sought safe haven. It is about the transfer of the states’ rights principle from the right to the left as a means of defense against a predatory central government. It is about a political realignment that culminated in the election of a president with a minority of the popular vote. It takes place at a time when insult and invective became the currency of public discourse. And most of all, it reminds us at every turn of how enduring the devastating effects of America’s original accommodation with slavery were—and are—on the lives of black Americans. (p. 13)

I think that this book provides insights into the 1850s and the modern era that are both a warning and a promise.
 

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#28
From the review by historian Sean Willentz:

“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 so-called personal liberty laws to shield the fugitives.
 

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From the NY Times review:

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.
 

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From the NY Times review:

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.
 

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#35
From the Weekly Standard review:

In The War Before the War, Andrew Delbanco narrates this history in lucid prose and with a moral clarity that is best described as terrifying. It is not easy to look upon the long march of the nation towards war, and even harder to look upon the suffering of American slaves during that march—and not just slaves. To be sure, the 1850 act made absolutely explicit the radical stripping of all rights from them. “It was,” Delbanco writes, “an act without mercy”...

...One of the most admirable features of this truly great book is the subtlety with which Delbanco considers his story’s applicability to our own moment. Throughout the narrative proper he remains silent about the implications—except to note that the consequences of slavery for America’s black people persist to this day. But at the end of the introduction he quotes a passage written by the historian Richard Hofstadter in 1968 about comity—consideration of others, mutual regard. “Comity exists in a society,” Hofstadter writes, when “one party or interest seeks the defeat of an opposing interest on matters of policy, but at the same time seeks to avoid crushing the the opposition, denying the legitimacy of its existence or its values, or inflicting upon it extreme and gratuitous humiliations beyond the substance of the gains that are being sought.” Comity is present when “the basic humanity of the opposition is not forgotten; civility is not abandoned; the sense that a community life must be carried on after the acerbic issues of the moment have been fought over and won is seldom very far out of mind; an awareness that the opposition will someday be the government is always present.”
 

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From the New Republic review:

Perhaps reading and teaching writers like Hawthorne and Melville have helped Delbanco better appreciate what he calls “the contradictions of the human heart.” Many present-day historians dealing with issues of race and slavery tend to approach the past as prosecuting attorneys eager to bring all those culprits in the past to justice. They indict some in the antebellum period for their timidity and caution because they feared a war and did not know what to do, and applaud others who turned out to guess right about the course of events. Delbanco has too subtle a sensibility, too fine an appreciation of the tragedy of life, for that crude kind of history writing. Although he describes the brutality of slavery with force and clarity, and his feelings about slavery are never in doubt, he nevertheless displays a compassion for all the people, slaveholders included, caught up in circumstances they could scarcely control or even fully comprehend.
 

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#39
From a small local paper, the News Review:

https://www.petoskeynews.com/news/c...cle_74f50aa7-36b2-5e7a-a02a-bb9ec1a9c663.html

From the review:

In “The War Before the War,” Andrew Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia University, tackles this legacy, examining the social and cultural costs of slavery, while at the same time insinuating current social worries to provide a modern context. The result is a disturbing and detailed, look at American history.
 

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#40
From In These Times:

http://inthesetimes.com/article/216...mpromise-constitution-slavery-andrew-delbanco

The War Before the War offers a cautionary portrait of how accommodation can cause a great injustice to drag on for decades. Delbanco charts the many compromises the Founding Fathers made with Southern slaveholders for the sake of creating a United States—how the Constitution, which we think of as a morally enlightened guide to governance, was from the start a pact with the devil, a compromise that enabled atrocity.

Delbanco frames the Constitution as primarily a contract between slaveholding and nonslaveholding colonies. Twenty-five of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were slaveholders, some attending the convention with a whole entourage of slaves. Pressured by slaveholders to preserve their slave economy, the Founders postponed any possible ban on the slave trade for 20 years. Then they created the Three-Fifths Compromise, which meant that the slaveholding South got extra political clout and dollars, just as rural prison towns do today by including prisoners in their census count.
 



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