Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War. By Stanley Harrold. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 292. $30.00 cloth)

Long before the dramatic moments leading up to Fort Sumter, political, cultural, and economic tension over slavery strained relations between the free-soil states of the Lower North and slave states of the Upper South. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, and then with increasing frequency after the War of 1812, border residents negotiated, quarreled, then engaged in cross-state violence over slavery. Many of these incidents are famous; others are not. While acknowledging his dependence on other historians, author Stanley Harrold writes, "No book before this one . . . has integrated events in the Lower North and Border South in a narrative of extended cross-border conflict" (p. 14). In so doing, he suggests he offers his readers a new way in which to understand the origins of the American Civil War.

Southerners found the quarrels and lack of cooperation over slavery during the 1820s and 1830s troubling enough, but these irritants became serious provocations when a slave escaped into the North and a northern citizenry refused to help the return of southern property. Even a strengthened national fugitive-slave law did not seem to help. But what began as northern passive noncooperation in protecting southern property eventually included active slave-stealing expeditions by free-state religious "zealots." As antislavery politicians, such as Salmon Chase and Edwin Stanton, moved into the Ohio political mainstream, open violence erupted in so-called "Bleeding Kansas" and in John Brown's notorious attempt to incite a slave rebellion in Virginia. With the 1860 election of the border-state politician Abraham Lincoln, the Lower South had had enough. "Fire-eaters" declared that the Border South could no longer serve as their bulwark against the onslaught of a hostile northern culture increasingly sympathetic to antislavery measures. The safety of their human property, they concluded, depended upon the southern states' [End Page 480] departure from the Union. Yet paradoxically, or so Harrold argues, the citizens of the Upper South-from Delaware to Missouri-reached the opposite conclusion, believing that their only hope of preserving slavery lay in enhanced federal protection.

Harrold has spent a scholarly lifetime writing about abolitionism and the border region, and this reflective book is a product of that lifetime of learning. While the author covers and comments on events in all of the slave and free border states, readers with a special interest in Kentucky history will appreciate that the greater part of his book dwells on the conflicts between Kentucky and its Ohio and Indiana neighbors, and famous Kentuckians such as Cassius Clay play a conspicuous part in his story. General readers, however, should be aware that despite the emphasis on the drama of antebellum strife-an intrinsically interesting topic to be sure-this book is highly analytic in nature.

Harrold's use of primary sources is sometimes troubling. He, for example, relies on abolitionist sources to report on the views of slaveholders and their often-nefarious activities. While this is legitimate since abolitionists were more likely to report on the bad behavior of their opponents than ordinary newspapers, Harrold frequently does not make clear the partisan nature of his source material outside his endnotes. In addition, the author often relates stories of dramatic legal conflicts, but relies on newspaper accounts, when the legal documents associated with these cases might prove much richer.

These are relatively small problems. Of greater concern is Harrold's emphasis on the fringes of political strife during much of the first half of the century. Even as one acknowledges the significance of interstate contention over slavery, the reader can hardly believe the South is still in the Union by, say, 1830, much less 1860. By its nature this emphasis on border tension neglects the broader picture of good relations that was often the norm between these states. Ultimately, Harrold's central paradoxical thesis-that the same border struggles that drove the Lower South out of the Union also compelled [End Page 481] the border states, the principal sufferers of those depredations, into a more ardent embrace...


pdf