- Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War
With all the commemorations marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it would be easy for a history of the sectional crisis to get swept beneath the carpet. Clearly, the study of the war has hardly abated since the last anniversary in the 1960s. What makes this anniversary different, it seems, is that fifty years ago it was the road to the war, more than the conflict itself, that drew much of the scholarly attention. Work by David Potter, Don Fehrenbacher, and many others created a durable and powerful narrative about how the republic was torn in two, and historians still reckon with this interpretation. Spurred by the expansion of the republic which resulted in dearly bought congressional compromises and a second party system that came crashing down around the ears of voters, southern fire-eaters and northern abolitionists pushed an often ambivalent nation into armed conflict. Sectionalism forced Americans to choose sides, particularly those who lived on the amorphous border between “northern” and “southern” states: the region that, according to the older interpretation, was the most ambivalent about sectionalism and the last region to decide its fate in 1861. Important work since has added texture to this venerable story, filling in some of the blank spaces in the historiographical picture. Most recently, historians like Edward Ayers and William Freehling have produced important works which have blurred the stark line between slave and free states that was so instrumental to the larger sectional argument. In the main, however, the interpretation of an older generation has stood the test of time.
The publication of Stanley Harrold’s study of the border states should kick-start a new discussion. Harrold argues that rather than being pushed into the conflict, the border states were battlegrounds where the sectional crisis began. Overturning older interpretations that regarded fire-eaters [End Page 452] and abolitionists as sectionalism’s catalysts, the author makes clear that smaller conflicts involving border state Americans not only brought the sectional issue to a head but also forced the federal government to act. Harrold argues that in skirmishes stretching from Virginia to Kansas and as far back as the 1820s, border Americans fought with one another over issues that would come to dominate the national consciousness. Far from ambivalent, by 1860 border Americans were weary. For them, the road to the Civil War had been a very long struggle, and they had been on the front lines for decades.
Perhaps the most important historiographical contribution Harrold makes, building on the work of scholars like William Link, is to turn African Americans into primary actors in the sectional drama. Whether as slave runaways or members of free black communities who harbored fugitives, black Americans brought sectional tensions to the surface by forcing whites living on the border to come to their own moments of truth about where they stood on slavery. In making this point, Harrold pushes the historiographical importance of slave runaways away from ideological motivations and toward a more contingent understanding of the impact runaways had in a growing conflict within border communities. For Harrold, African Americans “catalyzed physical conflict as kidnap victims and self-emancipated slaves,” forcing white and black communities on both sides of the border to act (14). The book also shows that from the outset, conflicts over the future of slavery were never really contained within the halls of Congress. Rather, the battle was fought on the ground, in dozens of altercations large and small, and the involvement of Americans connected to but at a distance from the political arena gives Harrold’s narrative its propulsive force. Finally, the book adds a new dimension to the controversy surrounding the Fugitive Slave Act. Harrold does not necessarily break new ground in asserting that the act did more harm than good. However, he does show convincingly that the compromises at the heart of the 1850 legislation began on the border between North and South and metastasized throughout the country.