Delbanco writes lyrically and with presentist passion ... Delbanco also writes with a genuine sense of tragedy, and no small dose of indignation, about this story ... As a literary scholar, Delbanco values ambiguity, the confounding character of irony. When it comes to responsibility for slavery’s overwhelming power in our national history, he rejects simple fables of good and evil ... In an intriguing aside, he contends that Melville based Captain Ahab directly on the figure of John C. Calhoun, the South’s and slavery’s most notorious defender and a crucial proponent of the Fugitive Slave Law. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Delbanco’s serious engagement with and analysis of Calhoun’s place in history ... he uses familiar analogies throughout the book. Most succeed. In effect, he is having a conversation with his reader about today’s deeply divided society, by means of the fugitive slave issue and the way it tore America apart more than 150 years ago ... A major strength of this book is the writing itself ... Such grim language will not please everyone in today’s climate, but it wakes you up ... sweeping and fascinating...despite his title and his own use of the language of inevitability.
Distinguished professor of American Studies at Columbia Delbanco examines the untenable paradox of America’s founding on democracy and liberty and dependence on slavery through the stories of those who resisted enslavement by attempting to escape. Delbanco traces the crafting of and attempts to enforce Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution, known as the fugitive slave clause, which criminalized the sheltering of fugitive slaves and called on local authorities to help return them to slavers ... Delbanco provides a fresh and illuminating look at those who held fast to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in unspeakably oppressive and brutal times.
A traditional critic in the historicist mode, Delbanco has always thoughtfully rendered the contexts in which his writers wrote. He has offered fresh interpretations not only of how national politics shaped the writing of, say, Moby-Dick, but also of what Melville’s tragic awareness and moral ambiguities tell us about the temper of a nation hurtling toward civil war ... Delbanco’s incisive analyses of [several authors'] observations — and, just as important, of their failure to observe — form one of his book’s running themes. Delbanco’s skills as a literary critic also illuminate the contributions fugitive slaves made to the growing antislavery movement ... Delbanco’s literary judgments aside, 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 ... 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.
Delbanco highlights the especially tortured syntax of the fugitive slave clause (Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3) to show how the founding document, 'so filled with euphemism and circumlocution,' was littered with bombshells ... Delbanco traces how the compromises of the Constitution, along with the long history of compromise in the century that followed, tried to paper over a violent reality, disguising a moral issue as a technical one. But the slaves who ran away repudiated that fantasy. They were persistent reminders of the truth ... Delbanco is a close reader of literature and primary documents, often to revealing effect ... The War Before the War makes a few pointed comparisons to our current moment, though Delbanco emphasizes that, by the truly bloody standards of antebellum lawmaking, which included the vicious beating of the abolitionist senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, our politics are a veritable “'model of decorum.'”
The strength of Mr. Delbanco’s volume lies in its evocation of the human cost of the Constitution’s fugitive-slave provision, which was supplemented by the congressional bills of 1793 and 1850 ... Some fugitive-slave stories had successful conclusions. Mr. Delbanco relates many thrilling escape-and-rescue episodes ... In The War Before the War, Mr. Delbanco cites the aphorism, purportedly put forward by Mark Twain, that history does not repeat itself but often rhymes ... Mr. Delbanco includes frequent comparisons between 19th- and 21st-century America. Rampant suspicion and fear of ethnic others; the controversy over what we now call sanctuary cities, in which local authorities defy federal rules; and a seemingly unbridgeable cultural divide between political opponents: These and other phenomena were as agonizingly present then as they are now. For those interested in exploring the roots of today’s social problems and learning about early efforts to resolve them, [The War Before the War is] well worth reading.
... Delbanco tends to meander and jump about in time and comment on events in an essayistic fashion. Perhaps this is because Delbanco is technically not a historian but a literary scholar. Always attentive to language, he enriches his discussion with many references to novels, poems, and other literary works, not all of which are drawn from the antebellum decades ... [Delbanco] has read and cites an enormous number of primary and secondary sources, unfortunately sometimes mingling quotations from them without identifying the author in his text. But he has the happy habit of explaining and clarifying what many historians, writing for mainly other scholars, take for granted ... 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.
In The War Before the War, Delbanco, a professor of American studies at Columbia University in New York, provides a compelling, elegantly written account of how fugitive slave laws laid bare 'the moral crisis' in the hearts and minds of antebellum Americans ... Along with concerns about history as hindsight, The War Before the War hears 'echoes in our time' in debates over fugitive slave laws. The book includes past-in-the-present references ... Many of them, alas, involve little more than brief homilies to ideological soul mates. That said, Delbanco is on target, in my judgment, in reminding us of the devastating impact of 'America’s original accommodation with slavery.' And in suggesting that these days, millions of impoverished people are out of sight and mind, much as blacks were in the 19th century[.]
...With fine-combed research, Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University and 2012 recipient of the National Humanities Medal, argues that the Fugitive Slave Act was the centralized fuse that sparked the Civil War in The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War ... As Delbanco convincingly argues, the Fugitive Slave Act not only put a microscope on America’s fractured moral psyche, but its consequences seem to have echoed into the current political and social landscape. Racism, simultaneously an agent of white supremacy and a symptom, routinely shapes national policies and national identity. Ultimately, the Fugitive Slave Act was not a salve for the deepening fissures in the country’s conscience, but a reflection of America’s inability to grapple with its moral ambiguities. In the hands of an author strictly committed to objective, hard-nosed facts, The War Before the War would read as coldly authoritative and dry. Yet Delbanco treats his subject matter as a historical artifact, a sprawling puzzle and psychological case study, viewing America’s past acts as a troublesome blueprint for America’s present and possibly its future.
... enlightening ... the most compelling portions of this book are those describing the passage of five separate bills as part of the Compromise of 1850, ultimately resulting in the fugitive slave bill becoming law ... Delbanco condenses the Civil War’s events into the book’s final chapter, which at times feels like a barrage of disparate details. Perhaps this is again to reiterate the unavoidability of war and the breakneck speed it maintained once fighting began. Even so, the author never abandons his lens, giving long-overdue credit to black soldiers in turning what began as a war for union into a war for freedom.
... essential ... Andrew Delbanco provides a comprehensive overview of how the legal, moral and ontological questions posed by the presence of enslaved people in free territory unsettled the tenuous compromises ... The story of the 'road to the Civil War' is a familiar one, but in this masterful book, Mr. Delbanco foregrounds what he sees as the pivotal role of the fugitive slave issue in accelerating and intensifying the sectional conflict that culminated in secession and war.
Delblanco offers a too rare discussion of the important literature of the fugitive slave 'weapons in a war just begun' and 'truncated stories of impossibly virtuous behavior' ... Delblanco stays concise to his subject. The War Before the War is not an encyclopedia but a deep, scholarly, engrossing introduction to its subject that impacts us even today and in many ways.
In January 1850, writes Delbanco 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 ... 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.
Delbanco, an American studies professor at Columbia University, follows up 2012’s The Abolitionist Imagination with a more in-depth look at the divisive effects of slavery on America ... Delbanco’s strength is in making accessible to modern readers the arguments of the Southern advocates for slavery and Northern abolitionists. He examines court cases, including the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring that no slave had 'rights which the white man was bound to respect' ... This well-documented and valuable work makes clear how slavery shaped the early American experience with effects that reverberate today.