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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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This book tells the story of America's original sin--slavery--through politics, law, literature, and above all, through the eyes of enslavedblack people who risked their lives to flee from bondage, thereby forcing the nation to confront the truth about itself. The struggle over slavery divided not only the American nation but also the hearts and minds of individual citizen This book tells the story of America's original sin--slavery--through politics, law, literature, and above all, through the eyes of enslavedblack people who risked their lives to flee from bondage, thereby forcing the nation to confront the truth about itself. The struggle over slavery divided not only the American nation but also the hearts and minds of individual citizens faced with the timeless problem of when to submit to unjust laws and when to resist. The War Before the War illuminates what brought us to war with ourselves and the terrible legacies of slavery that are with us still.


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This book tells the story of America's original sin--slavery--through politics, law, literature, and above all, through the eyes of enslavedblack people who risked their lives to flee from bondage, thereby forcing the nation to confront the truth about itself. The struggle over slavery divided not only the American nation but also the hearts and minds of individual citizen This book tells the story of America's original sin--slavery--through politics, law, literature, and above all, through the eyes of enslavedblack people who risked their lives to flee from bondage, thereby forcing the nation to confront the truth about itself. The struggle over slavery divided not only the American nation but also the hearts and minds of individual citizens faced with the timeless problem of when to submit to unjust laws and when to resist. The War Before the War 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

    Faith

    It was an inconvenient fact that slaves often tried to escape. They were not mindless contented cattle. This book describes how their actual escapes, or the fear that they would try to escape, led to many compromises between the slave states and the free states, beginning with the fugitive slave clause in Article 4 of the Constitution, which required the return of fugitive slaves (the property) to their owners even if the slaves had managed to reach a state in which slavery was illegal. Later, C It was an inconvenient fact that slaves often tried to escape. They were not mindless contented cattle. This book describes how their actual escapes, or the fear that they would try to escape, led to many compromises between the slave states and the free states, beginning with the fugitive slave clause in Article 4 of the Constitution, which required the return of fugitive slaves (the property) to their owners even if the slaves had managed to reach a state in which slavery was illegal. Later, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 to strengthen enforcement of the clause. “One incensed citizen called it the ‘most disgraceful, atrocious, unjust, detestable, heathenish, barbarous, diabolical, man-degrading, womanmurdering, demon-pleasing, Heaven defying act ever perpetrated.‘“ To avoid the inhumane impact of this Act, the free states adopted personal liberty laws that created barriers to the enforcement of the fugitive slave clause. “For some in the north, harboring a fugitive became a moral imperative dictated by the ‘higher law’ that comes not from the Constitution or Congress but from God.” The Act could be viewed as an unconscionable compromise, or as a way of buying time until the North was strong enough to defeat the South, but in any event its passage clarified how mutually hostile the North and South had become and it hardened the antislavery movement. Ultimately the two positions could not be reconciled, resulting in the Civil War. I wish that I had had a history teacher who was even half as involved and interesting as this author. I glanced through the endnotes and it’s obvious that he did extensive research of both primary and secondary sources but the book is not dry. In addition to analyzing the political maneuvering, he described the people involved, both the famous ones and the unknowns. He touched on the mutilation and other ill treatment of fugitive slaves who were returned to their owners. It was both a punishment and a warning. He also explained the role of slave literature in revealing a hidden world. The author did an excellent job of covering all of the factors and points of view that enabled, and then abolished, slavery in this country. I learned a lot from this. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Southern delegates to the federal Constitutional Convention in 1787 obtained a fugitive slave clause that called for the capture and return of successful runaways. Enforcement was weak at first, but law-by-law it was strengthened, culminating in the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. This act highlighted the widening gulf between slave-holding southern states and the free states of the north. Delbanco recounts how Southern states became more and more dependent upon slave labor to produce cotton. It was the Southern delegates to the federal Constitutional Convention in 1787 obtained a fugitive slave clause that called for the capture and return of successful runaways. Enforcement was weak at first, but law-by-law it was strengthened, culminating in the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. This act highlighted the widening gulf between slave-holding southern states and the free states of the north. Delbanco recounts how Southern states became more and more dependent upon slave labor to produce cotton. It was the source of wealth; the larger the acreage under cultivation, the greater the profit. Therefore, the Southern states viewed slaves as a property issue, and subject to the laws governing property. On the other hand, the period between the adoption of the Constitution and the Civil War caused the northern states to increasingly view slaves as persons deserving of the law’s protections. What caused this change in perception? Delbanco follows events as they occurred—political speeches, popular books, grass-root organizing by abolitionists, first-hand accounts by former slaves, and more. It is a thoughtful and fascinating journey. Highly recommend this well-researched and well-written account.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Donna Davis

    You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: "When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system--proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.” It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader.

  4. 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

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    This is a really fascinating and devastating account of the fugitive slave acts and how northerners, southerners, abolitionists, and moderates all responded to it. It goes to the heart of a lot of divisions that were present at the formation of the country and that still linger today.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Bryn Greenwood

    Wow. I recommend this, but with the caveat that it's some incredibly tough stuff. There's so much information here that it isn't quick or easy reading, but now especially, when we are finally having a much-needed national discussion about the role of the police in enforcing white supremacy, this is important reading. Wow. I recommend this, but with the caveat that it's some incredibly tough stuff. There's so much information here that it isn't quick or easy reading, but now especially, when we are finally having a much-needed national discussion about the role of the police in enforcing white supremacy, this is important reading.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Brenda

    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.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Kirsti

    Excellent overview of the Fugitive Slave Act--why some people believed it was needed, how people reacted to it, and what events took place that led the country into civil war. Lots of information about stolen people and their struggles to survive.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Carol Storm

    Great history of the legal and moral problems raised by runaway slaves in pre-Civil War America. The author is a noted professor from the elite history department at Columbia University in NYC. Andrew Delbanco has a concise writing style and makes the basics of the U.S. Constitution come alive while detailing the ways in which public opinion in the north gradually turned against slavery. Laws that were either ignored or disregarded for generations became the source of explosive controversy as war Great history of the legal and moral problems raised by runaway slaves in pre-Civil War America. The author is a noted professor from the elite history department at Columbia University in NYC. Andrew Delbanco has a concise writing style and makes the basics of the U.S. Constitution come alive while detailing the ways in which public opinion in the north gradually turned against slavery. Laws that were either ignored or disregarded for generations became the source of explosive controversy as war approached. Whereas in 1830 captured slaves could be dragged through northern cities without comment, by 1860 the same sight would often provoke riots and bloodshed, with blacks and whites fighting together against southern agents and federal officers. Delbanco is a brilliant writer of history, as long as he sticks to the facts and to historical events. Where he gets into trouble fast is where he tries to weigh in on cultural, artistic, and spiritual matters. It's disappointing to see a revered Columbia scholar taking cheap shots, over and over, at classic American authors like Herman "Moby Dick" Melville and Nathaniel "Scarlet Letter" Hawthorne. Evidently Delbanco has written a book on Melville, because he quotes himself. A lot. There are far too many simplistic generalizations. ("Ahab is really Calhoun. The whale is really Lincoln. Fedallah is really Osama Bin Laden. Stubb is really Trump!") And with Hawthorne it's like, "none of his legendary novels or tales were about slavery, but in many of his letters he indicates that he just wishes the whole problem would go away." Yeah, people are like that. Delbanco must have really gone pawing through the waste basket to come up with these shocking new truths. Where it gets downright weird is when he starts coming out of left-field with flattering nonsense about lesser figures. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is a fun book with a heartwarming message. But it's not exactly Moby Dick. Or the Scarlet Letter. This is not about gender, but about things like irony, ambiguity, complexity and insight. So now Delbanco comes along, and says it's a great book, and then makes a mysterious remark about how it's really "a very Catholic book" because it has such emotion and so much bright and colorful imagery. Then he starts mumbling about how Stowe herself might have been a "crypto-Catholic." WTF?!?!? Strangely enough, real Catholics don't figure into this account of slavery in America at all. There's no mention of colorful Irish leaders like Archbishop John Hughes -- "Dagger" John to his friends -- who hated blacks and openly opposed emancipation throughout the Civil War. There's no mention of the church's centuries-long support of the African slave trade. Even when he's forced to acknowledge the notorious Draft Riots of 1863, Delbanco can't do anything but mumble vaguely about "northern whites" attacking black folks in the streets of NYC. He doesn't want to mention that the mobs were made up mostly of Irish immigrants, loyal to the pro-slavery Catholic church. What it comes down to is an act of supreme cynicism. Delbanco needs Stowe on his side, because the facts are all against him. He has to make Harriet Beecher Stowe into a "crypto" Catholic because all the "open" Catholics were on the wrong side of history. Our sad-eyed Italian scholar is no slouch when it comes to toeing the party line, and genuflecting before the idols of modern-day political correctness. This book is full of fawning references to Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander. But when it comes to his own neighborhood, his own church, he's less than candid about where the bodies are really buried. One final thought: if Harriet Beecher Stowe really was a "crypto-Catholic," could she also be the true author of Mario Puzo's The Godfather? All through this book I kept picturing her smashing the dinner plates and chasing Andrew Delbanco around the apartment with a kitchen knife, just like Connie when she's feuding with her husband Carlo. "Don't call me a crypto-Catholic! My father was a Calvinist preacher! My grandfather was a general in the American Revolution! My brother and my husband were both Protestant abolitionists! Go on, make up stupid lies to cover up for your own kind! Murder the truth, you spoiled Guinea brat!"

  10. 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.

  11. 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.*

  12. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Stolar

    I almost wish I had access to a magical machine where I could emerge as an 18 year old about to matriculate at Columbia University so I could major in history and take classes with renowned professors such as Professor Delbanco. Since that's unlikely to happen, the next best thing is to get to read this wonderful book on the history of the U.S. from the Revolution until the Civil War. I had never given much thought or consideration to the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, despite having I almost wish I had access to a magical machine where I could emerge as an 18 year old about to matriculate at Columbia University so I could major in history and take classes with renowned professors such as Professor Delbanco. Since that's unlikely to happen, the next best thing is to get to read this wonderful book on the history of the U.S. from the Revolution until the Civil War. I had never given much thought or consideration to the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, despite having read it numerous times. I don't know why this is, but reading this book was certainly thought provoking. It so perfectly illustrates why "compromise" is not always a good thing. When the subject is simply not morally or ethically capable of compromise. Either one believes slavery was immoral and inhumane and therefore should be forbidden, or one does not. There can't be a halfway measure, and this book shows how the United States tried mightily to find one, but ultimately could not. There are a surprising number of parallels to current day issues, which the author often acknowledges. I highly recommend this book, especially to anyone who enjoys American history. It's a dense, fact-packed read, so it's not one that's light or quick. But it is exceptionally worthwhile.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Donna Herrick

    Like most Americans I know most of American History from high school classes. The events of the Civil War are etched into my memory and there are hints of recognition of American leaders like Stephan Douglas, John C Calhoun, Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Dred Scott. Like many Americans I am pained that our nation was born with the sin of slavery. A sin that we still strive to expiate and atone for. This book is a very emotional read. Snatches of the biographies of "fugitive slaves" are w Like most Americans I know most of American History from high school classes. The events of the Civil War are etched into my memory and there are hints of recognition of American leaders like Stephan Douglas, John C Calhoun, Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Dred Scott. Like many Americans I am pained that our nation was born with the sin of slavery. A sin that we still strive to expiate and atone for. This book is a very emotional read. Snatches of the biographies of "fugitive slaves" are woven together with explanations of the battle in Congress and the legal battles between the states either enforce of thwart the provisions written into our Constitution that enabled the keeping and trade in slaves. That the fact that slavery was written into our Constitution and that our Supreme Court declared that black people were not eligible for citizenship is painful to me does not begin to compare with the daily struggles that Black people continue to bear today because of the inbred racism of the United States of America. The names from History class come alive in this book. The struggle with slavery that our forefathers engaged in for the first 80 years of the country gets fleshed out. This book will bring clarity to our past, but it will not guide us to a better future.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    I never thought American History was interesting until this book. The history of black americans, enslaved black human beings, whose futures depended on both the whims of their owners and the beliefs of free-state citizens who either agreed they were property or should be granted the rights of any human being. There are facts and history woven throughout, mentions of authors and poems and politicians and speeches that were remarkably relevant and memorable. I even accidentally learned the preside I never thought American History was interesting until this book. The history of black americans, enslaved black human beings, whose futures depended on both the whims of their owners and the beliefs of free-state citizens who either agreed they were property or should be granted the rights of any human being. There are facts and history woven throughout, mentions of authors and poems and politicians and speeches that were remarkably relevant and memorable. I even accidentally learned the presidential succession to Lincoln. Worth a read!

  15. 4 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... 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...

  16. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    A little repetitive in places, and I had occasional issues with the writing style, but overall a lucid, well-researched, nuanced, and timely read. Highly recommend.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ted Hunt

    This is perhaps the best book that I have read this year. Its thesis is essentially that while the central issue of the Civil War was slavery in general, the thing that created the intense emotions that led to disunion was the issue of fugitive slaves. The controversies over fugitive slaves in American history are examined in just about every way possible. From the constructive of fugitive slave clauses in the Constitution, to the court cases that dealt with the issue, to the way that various ge This is perhaps the best book that I have read this year. Its thesis is essentially that while the central issue of the Civil War was slavery in general, the thing that created the intense emotions that led to disunion was the issue of fugitive slaves. The controversies over fugitive slaves in American history are examined in just about every way possible. From the constructive of fugitive slave clauses in the Constitution, to the court cases that dealt with the issue, to the way that various genres of American culture wealth with the topic, the author does an admirable job of showing the centrality of the issue of fugitive slaves in the American psyche. The book highlights the actions of well known figures like Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, as well as many relative obscure figures who played a role in this controversy. While the author's previous works have usually focused on American culture, this book's treatment of the history of this era is spot on. And knowing that he has written an entire book on Herman Melville, I will take him at his word that Captain Ahab was probably based on John Calhoun. I will now probably need to read "Moby Dick" again. In short, if one is looking to get a handle on the background of the American Civil War, this book is a "must read."

  18. 4 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.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Myles

    When 13 dinky colonies in Great Britain’s empire decided to throw off the chains unreasonable taxation and lack of representation in Parliament, many revolutionaries identified themselves with creating an enduring democracy dedicated to equality and the pursuit of liberty. But those men who were tasked with the job of bringing the colonies together knew that it was a temporary accommodation to last at least until the war with Britain was won. Not all were equal to those signatories of the Declara When 13 dinky colonies in Great Britain’s empire decided to throw off the chains unreasonable taxation and lack of representation in Parliament, many revolutionaries identified themselves with creating an enduring democracy dedicated to equality and the pursuit of liberty. But those men who were tasked with the job of bringing the colonies together knew that it was a temporary accommodation to last at least until the war with Britain was won. Not all were equal to those signatories of the Declaration of Independence, nor did it become more equal when The Constitution enshrined the property rights of slave-owners. The revolutionaries from the southern colonies had every intention of maintaining the institution of slavery, while the northern revolutionaries had no intention at all of admitting slavery into their colonies, now “states.” So from the beginning, the so-called “United” States of America were never “united” on a fundamental tenant of the union, that of all men being equal before the eyes of God. We assume that the northerners didn’t want slavery because it was an affront to God, but many northerners didn’t want the slaves (read: blacks) among their society. And largely Irish immigrants in New York and Boston didn’t want the competition for jobs. Northerners in fact were great beneficiaries of the system of slavery. Northern mills processed slave-picked cotton. Northern banks loaned money to slave enterprises. And Northern ladies drank coffee with slavemade sugar. Early in the new United States there were relatively few vocal opponents of slavery on purely religious grounds, but even these people had a hard time convincing themselves that black slaves were the equal of whites. One bone of contention was whether the blacks were humans or property. If they were human they deserved due process under the new laws of the federation. If they were property, then blacks who escaped slavery were subject to the laws of property. Generally speaking, property doesn’t run away. But this property did run away. And frequently. Most slaves didn’t get very far. A few did. This book, “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War’” by Andrew Delbanco, follows the progress of laws enacted to return slaves to their owners, and laws created by northern states to thwart the intent of fugitive slave laws. It is a mirror on the times. There is much debate over what eventually brought about the American Civil War. Professor Delbanco makes a pretty strong case that it was the Mexican-American War that lit the fuse that blew the accommodation apart. America inherited so much land in winning that war. Whether liberated Texas and California should be slave states. And there was the earlier Louisiana Purchase. Whether Kansas should a slave state. Whether Missouri or Nebraska should be free-soil. The flow of capital and immigrants into the liberated territories fueled discontent. Land speculators in Texas sold cotton-growing land. White prospectors flooded into California. Trying to separate the demands of capital vs. the humanitarian grounds for abolishing slavery becomes complex and maybe ultimately inseparable. Southern states initially planned on the Federal Government guaranteeing their property rights with runaways. Northerners didn’t want the federal government interfering in what they saw as state matters. (Sounds eerily familiar, no?) Moreover, the revolutionary government created the Senate as a balance to the popular sovereignty of northerners. As long as there were equal representation between slave and non-slave states in the union, southerners had no fear of losing their birthright. Thus the pressure to create an equal number of slave states in the new territories. If the north, with their vastly growing populations were given more free states, then they would create more legislation favourable to their ends, and keep the Supreme Court packed with nominees to uphold decisions friendly to their objectives. (This also sounds eerily familiar.) Anybody familiar with Isabel Wilkerson’s outstanding “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” knows that when large numbers of the ex-slaves and their progeny finally made their way to the northeast, to the northern Midwest and to California, white communities reacted by building societal walls to their integration: separate schools, separate housing, and whites-only unions. That is where the more modern version of equal before the law and the eyes of God eventually led America. Much of this story is told from the side of the northern sensibility, as in: it was obvious that slavery was morally wanting and that northern expansion was pressuring the south to acquiesce. What shouldn’t be lost on the reader is that the North agreed and benefitted by the confederation with the south. In a very clear way the North owed its freedom to the south. Without demanding the end to slavery. America's curious libertarian streak ends these days when the talk turns toward reproductive rights. The very same people who champion "states rights" and hands-off government demand the state outlaw abortion. In the antebellum south, landowners wanted to preserve their independence AND gov't intervention to preserve their rights. Much is made today of the political divide between urban and rural voters, perhaps the coastal elites vs. the heartland if you believe in it. It is directly analogous with North vs. South in antebellum America. But that would obscure the similarities in their attitudes toward the real disenfranchised. The Civil War ended the precincts of slavery, but America still wrestles with the aftermath.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Becky Loader

    As a Civil War re-enactor, I have read a lot of books about the Civil War and the time following. The time period immediately preceding the War is not an era I have read much about. Delbanco has written a finely researched, readable account of the time leading up to the Civil War and the incredibly complicated history of slavery in North America. I say North America, because he starts his account when the United States was a fledgling. He handles the details of the economics behind slavery extrem As a Civil War re-enactor, I have read a lot of books about the Civil War and the time following. The time period immediately preceding the War is not an era I have read much about. Delbanco has written a finely researched, readable account of the time leading up to the Civil War and the incredibly complicated history of slavery in North America. I say North America, because he starts his account when the United States was a fledgling. He handles the details of the economics behind slavery extremely well and presents background on the Fugitive Slave Law that I was not familiar with at all. Very well written and informative.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Aimee Leonhard

    This was hard going on so many levels. While this is a dense book with a lot of material, it is very well organized and the authors arguments are clearly set out. It was worth the time and difficulty. I think the main thing I took away from this is that slavery is like a virulent disease or a plague that leaves no one uncontaminated. This is obviously not a pretty history. I appreciated the author's attempts to show the damage to all US citizens while not flinching from the most grievous, the sl This was hard going on so many levels. While this is a dense book with a lot of material, it is very well organized and the authors arguments are clearly set out. It was worth the time and difficulty. I think the main thing I took away from this is that slavery is like a virulent disease or a plague that leaves no one uncontaminated. This is obviously not a pretty history. I appreciated the author's attempts to show the damage to all US citizens while not flinching from the most grievous, the slaves themselves.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Paul Womack

    I would give six or more stars if available. This is quite an imposing work of history and social commentary. The characters come alive, with their faults and strenghts, with the moral ambiguities over enslavement many endured in order to preserve the Union, with their passions to see freedom expanded. Terrible as it was, I can only be profoundly grateful the war’s end was the restoration of the Union. I remain sadly perplexed much, much more remains to be done to realize the dream.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Shane Hawk

    Strong work of history. Great writing style. Delbanco framed much of it around the FSA. Tons of historical nuance and context. Recommended for those interested in the events leading up to the American Civil War.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Straw

    I wholeheartedly appreciate an author that isn't afraid to discuss modern times in the context of history. Playing at objectivity and absolute truths is such a bore - and completely untrue when everything is through the lens of humans. I think the portion of the book up to the Civil War was amazing. The last portion lost some focus and felt rushed. I wholeheartedly appreciate an author that isn't afraid to discuss modern times in the context of history. Playing at objectivity and absolute truths is such a bore - and completely untrue when everything is through the lens of humans. I think the portion of the book up to the Civil War was amazing. The last portion lost some focus and felt rushed.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lissa

    4.5 stars.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bobbi Emel

    Incredibly researched history of The Fugitive Slave law and how it created tensions between north and south that contributed greatly to the start of the Civil War. Long, but worth it!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Oliver

    A phenomenal book if you want perspective on the conflict of slavery starting before the American Revolution and going through the end of the Civil War.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lucy

    A+

  29. 4 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.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cara Byrne

    "The fugitive slave story is a rhyming story. It is impossible to follow it without hearing echoes in our own time. It is about the breakup of the two major political parties in antebellum America. It is about the rise of what might be called the first Black Lives Matter movement, as black people in the North protested the outrage of slavery and stormed the jails where runaway slaves were held [...] most of all, it reminds us at every turn of how enduring the devastating effects of America's ori "The fugitive slave story is a rhyming story. It is impossible to follow it without hearing echoes in our own time. It is about the breakup of the two major political parties in antebellum America. It is about the rise of what might be called the first Black Lives Matter movement, as black people in the North protested the outrage of slavery and stormed the jails where runaway slaves were held [...] most of all, it reminds us at every turn of how enduring the devastating effects of America's original accommodation with slavery were - and are - on the lives of black Americans" (13). A smart, well-written, well-researched and readable history of America and the Fugitive Slave Law.

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