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The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War

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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 pro 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.


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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 pro 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.

30 review for The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mara

    I appreciate this as a part of the growing area of popular historical non-fiction that is contextualizing the role that resistance among enslaved people played in catalyzing the conflict of the Civil War. This book helps reclaim our public memory & narrative on the true level of resistance that enslaved people enacted, which not only changed their personal lives, but also drove the forces of national policy and dialogue leading up to the Civil War

  2. 5 out of 5

    Brenda Ayala

    The War Before the War covers everything that led up to the US civil war and how much went into it. A fair portion of it is spent on the Fugitive Slave Act and encompassed the ambivalent feelings many had over slavery. Most importantly, it covered the views of slavery from a variety of standpoints, including ex-slaves, northerners, religious officials, southerners, and loyal slaves. It was well researched and had a breadth of information to cover, which it did very well. At times it was repetiti The War Before the War covers everything that led up to the US civil war and how much went into it. A fair portion of it is spent on the Fugitive Slave Act and encompassed the ambivalent feelings many had over slavery. Most importantly, it covered the views of slavery from a variety of standpoints, including ex-slaves, northerners, religious officials, southerners, and loyal slaves. It was well researched and had a breadth of information to cover, which it did very well. At times it was repetitive, but it wasn’t bad enough to be a distraction and detract from the overall effect. The author did a good job of throwing in anecdotes to the narrative so it wasn’t so dry. Nonfiction can be hard to get through if it reads too much like a dry timeline of events, and this author made sure to spice it up. Easily my favorite was a certain light colored slave woman pretending to be a rich lady and smuggling herself and her husband out of slavery. It’s tales like that that force us to recognize these events happened to real people, not just a generic population of faceless masses.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Darcia Helle

    Most history books covering the period from the Revolution to the Civil War are written from the white person's perspective. Whether looking at it from the south or the north, pro- or antislavery, events are often told as if African Americans sat silently awaiting their rescue. I love that this book flips all that upside down, showing us how slaves and free blacks both worked together and clashed during this period. We're shown how and why the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, the resulting proble Most history books covering the period from the Revolution to the Civil War are written from the white person's perspective. Whether looking at it from the south or the north, pro- or antislavery, events are often told as if African Americans sat silently awaiting their rescue. I love that this book flips all that upside down, showing us how slaves and free blacks both worked together and clashed during this period. We're shown how and why the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, the resulting problems for all citizens, and the ever-widening divide between the southerners clinging to their right to "own" people and the northerners growing inability to look away. And, maybe most importantly, we're shown how African Americans rose up and demanded change. Throughout the narrative, the author makes some compelling references to current events, inadvertently reminding us that maybe we haven't moved as far from our dark past as we'd like to think. He gives us much to think about, not least of which being how a country founded on freedom and personal liberty could ever legitimize the right to own another person. While the subject matter is dense and complex, the writing style is engaging. I felt like I was transported back to this tumultuous time. I'd like to see this book as required reading for every high school student. And maybe those students should then pass the book on to their parents. We need to acknowledge the fissures that divided our country have shifted but haven't healed. This book goes a long way to showing us the how and why. *I received an advance copy from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.*

  4. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    Needs more than my usual two or three lines of Goodreads notes and I don't have time for more than two or three lines (later, then) - this is a masterclass in writing nuanced and imaginative history. Along the way, Delbanco includes just enough parallels to our current moment to spark readers' ethical imaginations (and make them squirm in their seats). Alan Jacobs reviews the book here: https://www.weeklystandard.com/alan-j...

  5. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    In recent years I have read numerous books on Abolitionism and the Abolitionists, the Underground Railroad, Abraham Lincoln's life and political career and the formation of the Republican Party, etc. Despite this I decided to read The War Before the War for two reasons. First, I have found that any book which gets an overall rating of 4.0+ on Goodreads deserves my consideration. Second, the blurb describing it sounded quite interesting. I can happily note that I was quite satisfied overall with t In recent years I have read numerous books on Abolitionism and the Abolitionists, the Underground Railroad, Abraham Lincoln's life and political career and the formation of the Republican Party, etc. Despite this I decided to read The War Before the War for two reasons. First, I have found that any book which gets an overall rating of 4.0+ on Goodreads deserves my consideration. Second, the blurb describing it sounded quite interesting. I can happily note that I was quite satisfied overall with the book. While the author's primary focus was on the legal aspects of the way in which the fugitive slave issue bedeviled relations between the North and the South, he included other societal and cultural elements of the conflict as well. For example, he gave reasonable attention to so called slave narratives and to Abolitionist newspaper accounts. His expertise on Herman Melville and such other authors of the antebellum era as Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and Beecher Stowe allowed him to demonstrate how American authors wrote or in many cases did not write about the problems that slavery was causing the country. All of this was systematically organized in a readable prose. I agree with those Goodreads reviewers who observed that there was some repetition in the points or examples that Delbanco gave. However, for the most part the anecdotes which he wove into his narrative made for a rich, multilayered, nuanced, and illuminating read. Besides the mild redundancy the book had some other flaws as well. The author noted a number of important politicians as JQ Adams, Stevens, Sumner, Chase, Seward, Birney, Stephen Douglas, and Calhoun. He also wrote about such well known Abolitionists as Frederick Douglass, Garrison, Lovejoy, Lundy, and John Brown in the course of telling his story. But there were other noteworthy people he failed to give credit to. For example, he wrote of Angelina Grimke but not her sister Sarah. He also failed to make mention of Theodore Weld and the start of Oberlin College as important contributors to Abolitionism. He briefly articulated the donations to the Abolition movement of philanthropist Garrett Smith but did not comment on the role that the Tappan brothers also played in this respect. Finally, the significant part in Abolitionism played by the Quakers both in Pennsylvania and North Carolina was not articulated in TWBTW. Neither were African American or women Abolitionists, aside from Angelina Grimke, written about in this book. The author's attention to the Underground Railroad was far too superficial, IMHO. And he wrote nothing about the Canadian settlements of escaped slaves which developed in the 1840's and 50's. While somewhat disappointing, these acts of omission did not detract a great deal from the overall quality of TWBTW. I realize one has to make choices in writing a book like this or else it would become much longer than it already is. Thus, I would rate it as 4, maybe even 4.5, stars. As one Goodreads reviewers noted, this is a fine book for someone to read who knows little of the conflicts leading up to the Civil War. A reader will come away with a pretty thorough accounting of the basic elements. Then one can go ahead to read about other related issues and/or people as he/she might wish. For those who would like some suggestions about other books to read about Abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, etc please contact me via Goodreads. I would be happy to make anyone 'a friend' and give them access to the books that I have read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Casey Wheeler

    This book is simply amazing. It is well written and researched and an engaging read. The author covers the time period from the Revolution to the Civil War and the struggles endured by slaves seeking freedom, maintaining freedom and those who could not escape the harsh environment in which they were kept. He makes excellent use of qoutes from the many different players involved during the time period including escaped slaves helping to bring clarity to the subject. I recommend this book for anyon This book is simply amazing. It is well written and researched and an engaging read. The author covers the time period from the Revolution to the Civil War and the struggles endured by slaves seeking freedom, maintaining freedom and those who could not escape the harsh environment in which they were kept. He makes excellent use of qoutes from the many different players involved during the time period including escaped slaves helping to bring clarity to the subject. I recommend this book for anyone who wants a definitive book on the issues of slavery in the United States. I received a free Kindle copy of The War Before the War by by Andrew Delbanco courtesy of Net Galley  and  Penquin Books, the publisher. It was with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon and my fiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages. I requested this book as the description interested me and I am an avid reader of american history. This is the first book by the author that I have read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lissa

    4.5 stars.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Donna Davis

    Well documented and readable. Review will be up soon.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Alexis

    I can't recommend this book enough. It was a capitvating read in its own right, but the depth the author goes into adds even more enjoyabilty. I learned so much from it, and even had a whole conversation about what I had learned with a friend the other day. The topic is timeless, and sadly still applies today. The author makes compelling references to modern events without being political. Modern references and comparisons vary from Trump, to Vietnam, to the Iraq war and make the comparison with I can't recommend this book enough. It was a capitvating read in its own right, but the depth the author goes into adds even more enjoyabilty. I learned so much from it, and even had a whole conversation about what I had learned with a friend the other day. The topic is timeless, and sadly still applies today. The author makes compelling references to modern events without being political. Modern references and comparisons vary from Trump, to Vietnam, to the Iraq war and make the comparison without judgement on the topic, in a way that helps the reader understand the historical mindset. The North and South are both portrayed as flawed, and no one side is held up to be perfect or completely racially sensitive. Actual, human reasons are given as motives for slave owners, and abolitionists alike, which we can understand. Questions like, "why would people obessed with freedom have slaves?" or "What started the civil war?" are fairly answered. if you want to learn about the lead up to the civil war in an informative and easy to read manner, this is definately the book to do so with.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Vince

    United States Constitution Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 otherwise known as the Fugitive Slave Clause: No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due. With the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Clause the framers of our Constitution decided that the only way to f United States Constitution Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 otherwise known as the Fugitive Slave Clause: No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due. With the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Clause the framers of our Constitution decided that the only way to form "a more perfect union", or any union at all, was to appease the slave states of the South. Thus began nearly a century of escalating strife between the pro and anti-slavery factions of the newborn United States, its political factions and the populace at large, that inevitably led to secession and civil war. Andrew Delbanco did a marvelous job researching the era to produced a piece of non-fiction that is not only academic but also highly readable. His inclusion of interviews and anecdotes bring the history to life and gives it emotional heft. This is not a, dry, slogging text by any means. It is also strengthened by the pains taken to describe this period from a variety of perspectives. Northern conservatives and abolitionists, fugitive slaves and free blacks, Southern slave holders all have a voice. In doing so it helps the reader to understand that the people who lived this history had no benefit of hindsight and illuminates their plight in walking a very thin line between supporting immoral laws that returned fugitive slaves to often brutal masters or choosing a path of resistance. Educational to say the least and also profound. It you're committed to gaining a deeper understanding of America's history of racial injustice or are simply interested in the antebellum era, then this book should be added to your list.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Steven M Cohen

    I have to say that this is an astonishingly great book. I have read dozens of books on this area of history, the Civil War and the run-up to it, slavery, slaves, abolitionism, Lincoln, etc. I can’t think of a single one that ties this all stuff together more convincingly than Andrew Delbanco’s “War Before the War”. The author’s decision to refract all this through the lens of the Fugitive Slave clause of the Constitution (identifying this as the first of many compromises on slavery) and subsequen I have to say that this is an astonishingly great book. I have read dozens of books on this area of history, the Civil War and the run-up to it, slavery, slaves, abolitionism, Lincoln, etc. I can’t think of a single one that ties this all stuff together more convincingly than Andrew Delbanco’s “War Before the War”. The author’s decision to refract all this through the lens of the Fugitive Slave clause of the Constitution (identifying this as the first of many compromises on slavery) and subsequent Acts of Congress on the same subject is original and brilliant. It sheds new light on many areas that previous works have left murky. 1. Why didn’t the South believe Lincoln and the Republicans’ promises about leaving slavery alone where it existed? Answer: wherever there was a border slaves would escape to freedom and there would be enough supporters willing to try any means available to evade fugitive slave laws. 2. He segues from this brilliantly to the issue of “contrabands” in the Civil War escaping into the arms of the Union Army, no matter what the Union army thought it was fighting for. This is a more convincing account of how the war morphed into a war of liberation than any I’ve read before. 3. There’s also lots of good stuff on there he ethical choice that had to be made between abolitionism and “save the Union” compromisers all through the antebellum period not just in politics but also in culture, and literature. This is an original and impressive new contribution to this genre.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tony

    THE WAR BEFORE THE WAR: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. (2018). Andrew Delbanco. ***1/2. If you have read several other studies on slavery in America – as I have – you will find that there is not much new in this work, although there are always more stories to be told. The narrative is well told, and the information provided is encyclopedic, but…well. If you are looking for one volume in which all the information you need is in one place, THE WAR BEFORE THE WAR: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. (2018). Andrew Delbanco. ***1/2. If you have read several other studies on slavery in America – as I have – you will find that there is not much new in this work, although there are always more stories to be told. The narrative is well told, and the information provided is encyclopedic, but…well. If you are looking for one volume in which all the information you need is in one place, this is the go to book. If this is the first book you plan to read on slavery in America, it will likely be the last book on the topic you need.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Gianna

    This was such an interesting read about the laws relating to slavery before the Civil War and the effects of them. I haven't read such a detailed book yet, that answered questions I had and didn't know I had about the time leading up to the Civil War. There's hope in this book, I loved each and every story about people fighting against slavery (lawyers are amazing), but there are also so many harrowing stories and sadness. The comparisons to the current American politics are easily made and terri This was such an interesting read about the laws relating to slavery before the Civil War and the effects of them. I haven't read such a detailed book yet, that answered questions I had and didn't know I had about the time leading up to the Civil War. There's hope in this book, I loved each and every story about people fighting against slavery (lawyers are amazing), but there are also so many harrowing stories and sadness. The comparisons to the current American politics are easily made and terrifying. I received a free copy of the book on Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Amos

    I learned from the author’s presentation in this book, however tedious the author’s style. The prose with its frequent jabs at the current president and tribal politics in America will rapidly be dated and pose a distraction for future readers. Moreover, statements like “After the war, both sides were obliged, as we say today, to take ownership” fills space and will rapidly become distracting, I hope.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Bryce Doty

    Super impressed with this book. I'm an idiot and I know nothing about the world. I've always loved the American Renaissance authors (Emerson, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickenson, etc.) but I had no idea what world they were living in when they were writing. Highly recommend.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Richard Mounce

    Incredible book

  17. 5 out of 5

    Larry Kirshbaum

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  19. 4 out of 5

    Munera

  20. 4 out of 5

    Gershom Tsadiq

  21. 4 out of 5

    jean

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ken Schaefer

  23. 4 out of 5

    D. E.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Joshua Dyess

  25. 4 out of 5

    Charlie

  26. 5 out of 5

    Samira Haj Yahia

  27. 5 out of 5

    Macartney

  28. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  29. 4 out of 5

    Fah

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jim Ogle

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