SUMMING UP the American Civil War in a 1958 issue of Life magazine, Winston Churchill called it the “least avoidable of all the great mass conflicts of which till then there was record.” Andrew Delbanco’s new book The War Before the War also emphasizes the war’s inevitability because of the “long fuse” of the political struggle around slavery before the first shots were fired. And here the key figure is not an armed soldier but a fugitive slave.
Early on in this enlightening book, Delbanco likens 18th-century American slavery to a “maximum-security prison,” the escape from which was as unlikely as the Jews fleeing 20th-century concentration camps. By the time the founders called for revolution, slavery was woven so tightly into the national economic fabric that it touched nearly everyone, yet somehow managed to go unnamed in the original drafting of the Constitution.
This remarkable absence speaks to slavery’s immeasurable import. Following the Revolutionary War, Delbanco writes, “no question was more divisive […] than the future of slavery.” As the nation expanded, outlawing slavery in new parts of the country involved the trade-off of propping it up in the Old South. Thus was born the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, furnishing owners the right to reclaim their own escaped slaves residing in free states.
Northern states not wanting to comply with the act found loopholes to what they thought was “a dangerous federal law” by enacting a raft of state laws meant to frustrate it. Personal liberty laws intended to tangle slave owners up in so much red tape they’d eventually relinquish the chase to recover their fugitive slaves.
As a result of these legal machinations, slaves often occupied a gray area where freedom, when it was granted, was uncertain and even at times maligned. After English friends purchased the freedom of escaped slave Frederick Douglass, many of his hardcore abolitionist friends were upset with the transaction, as if freedom “were a house or a horse rather than the stolen birthright of a man.”
In his own memoir, Douglass portrayed his journey to freedom as an opportunistic tale of the “local boy makes good” variety. Delbanco views this as an effort to cast slaves as American dream chasers in order to gain the average reader’s sympathy. Being a literary scholar (namely of Melville) himself, Delbanco bemoans the lack of sophisticated slavery coverage in 19th-century fiction, which instead focused on the slave narrative, a genre “more than propaganda but less than literature” that served the dual purpose of entertainment and firestarter.
Both the popularity of narratives about slavery like the best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the physical presence of fugitive slaves in Northern states made the slavery issue more visible, leading to deeper political division. Referring to a fractured Congress convening in late 1849, Delbanco notes “party unity could no longer be presumed on any vote touching the slavery issue.”
It’s more frustrating than comforting to know that a US government in “gridlock” is nothing new. The founding and running of our nation has always been about compromise, a word that Delbanco points out, hasn’t always been so pejorative in nature (it’s derived from a Latin verb meaning “to make a mutual promise”). Perhaps if the word was less capitulatory in nature, lawmakers might feel led to do it more often. Still, 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.
It’s easy to criticize the many individuals who wavered in offering their full support for the abolition of slaves in the first half of the 19th century. Delbanco repeatedly reminds readers that in antebellum days, the future was terrifying. It was unknowable how long a war might last or how painful a dissolution of the union might be. Today we have the advantage of knowing that the Civil War, though a horrendous conflict claiming upward of 850,000 lives, ended in the emancipation of slaves and preservation of the union.
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. As a result, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made good on the “all men” promise of the Declaration of Independence penned less than a hundred years prior.
In the decade following the war, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who led a regiment of former slaves in South Carolina, wrote: “It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.” Many Americans feel ashamed in regards to the ongoing repair of the mess made by a civil war and a hundred years of human bondage. “All prior experience was poor preparation,” writes Delbanco of the war. The same could be said of what followed after — the decades of Reconstruction, the diaspora of African Americans to northern cities, and the Civil Rights movement.
Delbanco rightly attests that those affected by slavery are even now bearing out its effects, occupying a “limbo between the privations of their past and the future promise of American life — a transition that remains far from complete.” This limbo can be seen today in the mass incarceration of African Americans for negligible crimes; or the recent opening of a lynching museum and memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; or the Black Lives Matter movement. Somewhere in the dark, the fuse is still lit.