REVIEW: The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War (2018)

A Book by Andrew Delbanco

Whenever you see discourse regarding The American Civil War, you often see a number of “Lost Cause” fallacies enter the fray, such as saying that the war was caused solely because of nebulously defined “state rights.” This handwaving is downplaying what state rights the war was being fought over – namely the ability for The South to persist on a slave economy, their ability to handle runaway slaves the way the saw fit, and whether the two countries The Founding fathers stapled together and called “The United States” was required to even co-exist. A book like The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War by Andrew Delbanco may be a hard pill to swallow for many that take this path, not just because it paints everything in a way that tarnishes southern reputations, but it exposes a portion of history that many conveniently ignore. For anyone wanting to know what the true “first attack” was in The Civil war, one can look no further than the history of fugitive slave laws and how either side enforced or denied them.

Between this book and a concise book on “Bleeding Kansas”, I feel that many that simply parrot falsehoods from middle school history class would come out with a far better understanding of why the war even happened, and it’s not as easy as dividing two teams up as “good guys” and “bad guys”. This book covers everything from pre-Revolution up to the end of slavery in regards to the topic at hand.

“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.”

The most interesting part of this book is the fact that the history of so-called “fugitive slave laws” goes all the way back to the very founding of this country, with a much altered clause within The Constitution itself detailing the rules on how to handle someone bound to a labor contract that tries to escape the contract, and that other states would be required to send them back.

“Clause 3. No person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

The issue lies in how this is worded, as it does not mention slaves in any way and seems to point towards indentured servitude, which is not the same thing. If a slave is considered property rather than a person, how would that even affect them? This book is mostly about how a vague passage such as this caused millions of conflicting court cases, setting weird precedents and creating more issues. For example, how would they handle a situation if a white person is mis-labeled a slave? What if they fled to a free state that had opposite laws, which is more valid? The anger and fury of trying to settle questions like this snowballed into events such as “Bleeding Kansas” and later the war itself.

The only real issue I think many will have with this book is that the author tries to anchor some of the information in modern politics and current events of the time – namely the time period where there was that big push for the removal of Confederate War monuments put up by groups such as The United Daughters of the Confederacy in and around 2017-2021. While that is a good way to make a modern person think of the issue, I think it sometimes can cause issues with the longevity of the book’s interest. It could make this book seem “outdated” very quickly. For this reason, some of it also comes across as preaching to a modern reader rather than informing, like what one would imagine in a scholarly book. This was not a deal breaker for me, as I quite enjoyed the overall themes found within the book.

This was easily one of the best books I’ve read this year so far, and honestly not one I had heard about until recently. While not wholly ignorant on the issues regarding the runaway slave clause and various fugitive slaves laws, I saw these issues generally as mere footnotes in other books about The American Civil War, Having them exposed and elaborated on was eye-opening and gave me a greater understanding of what American life was like for many people in the years leading up to the war itself. I think the most telling thing in the narrative was just how ashamed most of the founding fathers seemed in speeches and writing in regards to slavery, many of which would rail against slavery in public, then be a prominent slaver in their own right and find ways to justify why THEIR slavery was okay in private. Don’t let people trying to hide history push you away from something like this, it’s important to know the real story of what was happening and use it to become a better country. We need more books likes this.

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