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  • The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War by Andrew Delbanco
  • Jonathan Daniel Wells (bio)
The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. By Andrew Delbanco. (New York: Penguin Press, 2018. Pp. 453. Cloth, $30.00; paper, $18.00.)

Was the Civil War inevitable? Modern scholars may still be reticent to make the claim so starkly that it was, but given the recent spate of books on the antebellum crises over fugitive slaves, readers might be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that, given the founding assumptions under which America was based, a massive clash between North and South was bound to unfold. The Constitution created a meek and leaky border between freedom and slavery that stretched for a thousand miles and that was easier to cross with each new road, canal, and railroad. Impossible to police, despite the Constitution’s mandate to free states to return the self-emancipated, the border was perhaps doomed from the start, and with it, the Union itself. As distinguished scholar Andrew Delbanco deftly recounts in his new book, every generation of politicians from 1787 to 1861 tried but failed to keep the border intact.

The border proved flimsy in part because white residents on both sides often preferred the economic and labor flexibility that came with a porous border, as historian Christopher Phillips argues in The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border (2016). In fact, Delbanco takes a cue from historian Stanley Harrold by including “war” in his title.1 Delbanco, an accomplished literary historian who specializes in what was once called “the American Renaissance,” lends his fine prose and knowledge of early nineteenth-century American [End Page 266] literature to produce a highly readable, if largely familiar, story of how the repetitive cycle of action and reaction generated by each new crisis over runaways changed northern public opinion and brought about the Civil War. In Delbanco’s account, the crises over fugitive slaves “lit the fuse” for secession and civil conflict (5).

Delbanco’s synthetic work joins a large and growing historiography on the national tensions generated by the determination of people of color to flee bondage. Recent studies of individual cases by such historians as Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Gary Collison, Richard Bell, and H. Robert Baker have built on previous work such as Thomas P. Slaughter’s study of the Christiana Riot in Pennsylvania.2 These and other analyses of individual fugitives have joined broader studies like R. J. M. Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery (2018) and Steven Lubet’s Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial (2010). The growing historiography on the self-emancipated, and the headaches runaways caused political leaders trying desperately to keep the precarious Union intact, seems to suggest that civil war was indeed simply a matter of time.

The War Before the War maintains that the issue of runaway slaves was a thorn in the side of the Union from its very founding. The first quarter of the book addresses the controversy over fugitives at the Constitutional Convention and convincingly argues that the new nation would have been stillborn were it not for the convention’s compromises over bondage, especially the clause in article IV, section 2, requiring that runaways “shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” Early Republican governors and judges expended considerable energy parsing the precise nature of the free states’ obligation to return accused runaways, and the middle chapters of Delbanco’s study address legal and political attempts to expand or curtail or deny that responsibility. Chief among these attempts were antebellum personal liberty laws designed to protect the rights of free states like Massachusetts and Michigan to avoid participating directly in fugitive renditions.

Much to the consternation of southern slaveholders, many residents of free states began to question the morality of the constitutional compromise of slavery, increasingly angry that they...