The apparent suicide of a stranger becomes both the subject of an author’s true-crime investigation and the catalyst for her intimate memoir. Provocative, sweeping study of America’s original sin—slavery—in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
...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.
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.