A Columbia University American Studies professor offers a sweeping study of how fugitive slaves seeking freedom from their Southern overseers—and the laws surrounding their status in the North—contributed to the U.S. Civil War and affected politics in late 18th and early 19th centuries.
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.'”