- Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War
Slavery, Border states, Bleeding Kansas
First, a disclaimer: I have read none of the other numerous and well-regarded books of this author on related topics. This therefore is the analysis of one who approaches this ambitious work as a stand-alone study of the conflict over the escape and rendition of fugitive slaves. The title of Stanley Harrold’s Border War says it all, and states the argument as well. In the author’s words: “No book before this one . . . has integrated events in the Lower North and Border South into a narrative of cross-border conflict” (14). This emphasis permeates Harrold’s thesis-driven work, with the strengths and potential liabilities that implies.
Harrold contradicts the image of sectional moderation in the region most forcefully restated in the work of William Freehling. Instead, Harrold “emphasizes a violent and often external threat to the slave system” posed by the border northern states (13). In this telling, the outrage felt by the Border South over abolitionist plots, mass escapes, illegal [End Page 162] kidnappings, and outright violence growing out of legal and extralegal attempts to recover slaves thrust them into the arms of the Deep South ideologues during the long run-up to secession. Given historians’ skepticism about Underground Railroad tales, Harrold sensibly declines to use unsupported memoirs. The evidence base is from the contemporary press, both proslavery and antislavery, Whig and Democrat, northern and southern. The author has an eye for the vivid anecdote, and the quotations presented certainly seem to support his characterizations. The cumulative effect of this parade of episodes is effective; there are a much greater number of armed confrontations over runaways than one might have thought likely. Given our contemporary sensibilities, it is difficult not to get caught up in these stirring tales. The deeper point is that the often hysterical-sounding southern response, and occasional armed forays into the free states, were motivated by genuine antislavery acts and widespread violations of federal fugitive slave legislation.
The author’s emphasis does yield productive insights. Northerners and southerners had been shooting each other over slavery long before the Civil War, and the parade of press accounts demonstrates that the public knew. Bleeding Kansas thus appears as the culmination of decades of frustration; Missourians rightly recognized that another Free State on their border meant increased runaways and slave plots. The subsequent violent raids from Kansas by John Brown and James Montgomery demonstrate that the Border Ruffians had a point. Harrold’s work takes an instructive turn during the secession crisis. Being on the edge of the proslavery republic would only make slaveholders’ problems worse. On the book’s final page, the author concludes “it was the long border struggle that predisposed Maryland, western Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri to remain loyal to the U. S. Government” (213). I think this exaggerated, because there were any number of reasons why these states preferred to stay in the Union. But Harrold’s evidence does point in this direction, and a more restrained formulation has some merit.
Still, it is hard to interpret the representativeness of the author’s evidence, the scale of the activity, or if the issue has the sort of salience the author claims. The author demonstrates numerous individual episodes of northern assistance to runaway slaves, and of black and white local resistance to slave catchers. He also shows that the slaveholders of Kentucky and similar states resented them severely. But how much, relative to other issues and grievances that were on white southerners’ minds? The author’s position is clear: “Sophisticated national debate over slavery, [End Page 163] its territorial expansion, or the relative political power of each section in the U. S. government were not the fundamental causes of conflict in the North-South borderlands” (15). Thus, the Kansas controversy was “an escalation of an existing border conflict,” rather than, as many historians believe, a violent expression of debate over slavery’s extension (164). The...