[A] sweeping and fascinating book . . . a long, festering story of political disunion, mapped through many voices. . . . Delbanco writes lyrically . . . and with a genuine sense of tragedy….The War Before the War presents a clear narrative of the legal and political history of [how], self-tortured by the slavery question, a ‘nation’ descended into disunion.” —David Blight, New York Review of Books
“A valuable book, reflective as well as jarring . . . Delbanco, an eminent and prolific scholar of American literature, is well suited to recounting . . . the most violent and enduring conflict in American history.”—Sean Wilentz, New York Times Book Review
“Delbanco . . . excavates the past in ways that illuminate the present. He lucidly shows [how] in the name of avoiding conflict . . . the nation was brought to the brink and into the breach. This is a story about compromises—and a riveting, unsettling one at that."—Jennifer Szalai, New York Times
"Sweeping . . . stirring . . . Delbanco relates many thrilling escape-and-rescue episodes. . . . Well worth reading...for those interested in exploring the roots of today's social problems and learning about early efforts to resolve them."—David Reynolds, Wall Street Journal
“A compelling, elegantly written account of how fugitive slave laws laid bare ‘the moral crisis’ in the hearts and minds of antebellum Americans."—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"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. . . 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."–Alan Jacobs, The Weekly Standard
“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.”—Gordon Wood, The New Republic
“[Delbanco] has performed a remarkable service in producing this deeply researched and heavily documented book. His literary style is flowing and graceful, well-balanced…This is truly an important book, and well-worth the time and effort to educate oneself in the source of a human tragedy whose far-reaching fingers still scratch upon our conscience.”—Richard Raymond, The Roanoke Times
"Cogently argued, meticulously researched, and compulsively readable, The War Before the War sheds new light not only on American history, but on America’s present story, and its struggles with race."—Read it Forward
“Andrew Delbanco’s latest book, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, is a richly detailed, thought-provoking and compelling chronicle of the role fugitive slaves played in widening the gap between America’s two distinct societies. . . Andrew Delbanco, who is a Columbia University professor, has written an engaging and most valuable account of America’s original sin.” — Christian Science Monitor
“Provocative, sweeping study of America's original sin—slavery—in the late 18th and early 19th centuries… Essential background reading for anyone seeking to understand the history of the early republic and the Civil War.” — Kirkus, starred review
“Superb…A paramount contribution to the U.S. middle period historiography.” — Library Journal, starred review
“This well-documented and valuable work makes clear how slavery shaped the early American experience with effects that reverberate today.” — Publisher’s Weekly
“Andrew Delbanco is one of our generation’s most gifted scholars and discerning, public intellectuals. In his astonishing new work, The War Before the War, he transforms the figure of the fugitive slave from the margins of American history to its dynamic center, demonstrating how their plight exposed the paradoxes in the soul of a nation torn between freedom and slavery, as it propelled to its greatest reckoning. By rendering in such gripping detail that defining struggle of the 18th and 19th centuries, Delbanco reminds us of the stakes of moral testing in every generation, and how the agents of moral change often begin their journeys under the most desperate circumstances. The result is not only a brilliant historical analysis; it is also a source of strength for the road ahead—a long, hard road that stretches back to the founding of our great Republic. This delightfully readable book is thronged with stories of heroes whose names may escape us, but whose flights from bondage helped to revolutionize the country we are called upon to defend today.” –Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard and author of Stony the Road
“The great value of Andrew Delbanco's interpretively edifying The War Before the War is in centering the cause of the great irrepressible conflict of 1860 in the many hearts-and-minds of otherwise indifferent, sympathetic, uncertain northern men and women who finally found enforced complicity in the South's 'peculiar institution' intolerable and a war for human ideals inescapable.” –David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography
“In The War Before the War, one of America’s most eloquent scholars draws readers into the compelling story of how the North-South struggle over runaway slaves prepared the way for the Civil War. From the making of the Constitution to the bloodbath that began at Fort Sumter, Andrew Delbanco captures the experience of escaped slaves as they forced white Americans to confront the cruelties of slavery. This is a political, legal, and above all, human, story with powerful resonance today.”—Dan Carter, author of Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South
“Timely, incisive, deeply researched, The War Before the War tells the vital story of fugitive slaves, whose courageous defiance forced the young nation to reckon with its primal horror. Delbanco’s swift-moving yet powerfully nuanced narrative offers insights into the institution of slavery and the political maneuvering that led up to the Civil War. This book is essential reading today, at a historical moment that demands unflinching reflection on founding truths.”--Elizabeth D. Samet, author of Soldier’s Heart and editor of the Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
“The War Before the War is a beautifully researched work of scholarship and one of the best examinations of the bleak, complex, macabre world of American slavery that I've read. Everything about the Peculiar Institution is here in vivid detail, but especially the crisis caused by a Fugitive Slave Act that tore this nation asunder. And if that were not enough, Andrew Delbanco makes us aware of how the past is painfully present today in our social, racial and political dilemmas that "rhyme" with those of our nineteenth century predecessors. This is a work every American needs to read.”—Charles Johnson, National Book Award-winning author of Middle Passage
“With a rare combination of in-depth historical research and an unmatched command of nineteenth-century American literature, Andrew Delbanco tells the story of the coming of the Civil War and emancipation. He highlights the role of fugitive slaves in forcing the slavery issue onto the centerstage of politics, but manages to treat all the protagonists in the long struggle over human bondage with compassion and insight. The result is an original rendering of the nation's greatest crisis.”—Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and Pulitzer Prize Winning author of Reconstruction and The Fiery Trial
“Wherever slavery existed, so did runaway slaves. Now Andrew Delbanco places those fugitives—and the laws that tried to stop them—at the center of the coming of the Civil War. In this surprising and dramatic history, we follow courageous slaves, outraged masters, righteous and self-righteous politicians, and agonized citizens, as they collide with the Constitution of the United States. Taking us to barbarous plantations and bustling city streets, into raucous courtrooms and the restive halls of Congress, Delbanco brilliantly reveals parallels with the humanitarian crises and cultural clashes of our own times.”—Martha Hodes, author of Mourning Lincoln
Provocative, sweeping study of America's original sin—slavery—in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In January 1850, writes Delbanco (American Studies/Columbia Univ.; The Abolitionist Imagination, 2012, etc.) early on in this book, a Virginia senator named James Mason introduced what would become the Fugitive Slave Act, justifying the law constitutionally. "From the point of view of its proponents," writes the author, "it was a new attempt to solve an old problem: slavery is a condition from which the enslaved will seek to escape." Slaves fled from George Washington's farms after the Revolution, and they fled in uncountable numbers in the years after that. Writes Delbanco, 1851 would see a record number of slaves being captured under the terms of the new law, which obliged nonslaveholding states to participate in the return of escapees to bondage; a handful of that number were freed, but most were returned either judicially or without due process. "Opponents regarded compliant officials with disgust and treated them with derision," writes the author, but even so, efforts to help slaves freeing captivity were improvisational, such as the Underground Railroad, "a loose confederation of independent cells of which the membership was sometimes a single person making a snap decision to hide a runaway rather than turn him in." Meanwhile, South and North struggled to expand or contain slavery in the new territories of the West, contributing to the conditions leading to secession and war. The overarching point of Delbanco's narrative is the legal complicity of various federal institutions, from the first constitutional conventions to laws passed just before and even during the Civil War. As the author observes, Lincoln seemed torn about how to dismantle slavery legally in the months leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation; it wasn't until June 1864, in a "belated act of formal recognition of what the war had already accomplished," that Congress repealed the Fugitive Slave Act.
Essential background reading for anyone seeking to understand the history of the early republic and the Civil War.