The War Before the War

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 20 Nov 2018

Member Reviews

Well written, well researched, easy to understand, and thorough.  Delbanco's ways of explaining the FSA highlight the moral threads that connect history from pre-civil war to current events. Readers are taken on a journey that is often touched on, but rarely explored in such depth and with such clarity. This work will be useful for any student studying the time period and can be enjoyed by the general reader or the academic. Well done, fascinating, and covers the topic excellently. I can see why this book won a plethora of awards. I have recommended this book to colleagues, students, friends, and family already, and I believe I will continue to recommend to everyone I know that needs a clearer understanding of history.
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It was an inconvenient fact that slaves often tried to escape. They were not mindless contented cattle.  This book describes how their actual escapes, or the fear that they would try to escape, led to many compromises between the slave states and the free states, beginning with the fugitive slave clause in Article 4 of the Constitution, which required the return of fugitive slaves (the property) to their owners even if the slaves had managed to reach a state in which slavery was illegal. Later, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 to strengthen enforcement of the clause. “One incensed citizen called it the ‘most disgraceful, atrocious, unjust, detestable, heathenish, barbarous, diabolical, man-degrading, womanmurdering, demon-pleasing, Heaven defying act ever perpetrated.‘“ To avoid the inhumane impact of this Act, the free states adopted personal liberty laws that created barriers to the enforcement of the fugitive slave clause. “For some in the north, harboring a fugitive became a moral imperative dictated by the ‘higher law’ that comes not from the Constitution or Congress but from God.” The Act could be viewed as an unconscionable compromise, or as a way of buying time until the North was strong enough to defeat the South, but in any event its passage clarified how mutually hostile the North and South had become and it hardened the antislavery movement. Ultimately the two positions could not be reconciled, resulting in the Civil War. 

I wish that I had had a history teacher who was even half as involved and interesting as this author. I glanced through the endnotes and it’s obvious that he did extensive research of both primary and secondary sources but the book is not dry. In addition to analyzing the political maneuvering, he described the people involved, both the famous ones and the unknowns. He touched on the mutilation and other ill treatment of fugitive slaves who were returned to their owners. It was both a punishment and a warning. He also explained the role of slave literature in revealing a hidden world.  The author did an excellent job of covering all of the factors and points of view that enabled, and then abolished, slavery in this country. I learned a lot from this. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
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Filled with great facts and thoroughly researched this book weaves together the facts to turn an interesting tale of a wonderful topic into a must read.
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You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. 

At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: 

"When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system--proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.”

It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. 

For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. 

I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader.
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There are a lot of books written about the Civil War but this book explores the battles fought concerning fugitive slaves. It is well written and really demonstrates how it was fought in the North as well as the South. 
I highly recommend this book.
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BookFilter Review: In this engaging work of scholarship and history, Andrew Delbanco focuses in on runaway slaves. Put people in chains and -- inconveniently -- those people will sometimes escape. From the earliest days of the US right through the Civil War, exactly what to do about fugitive slaves (and more importantly, who would do it) remained a burning issue. Indeed, Delbanco breaks his book into two parts: The Long Fuse and The Fuse Is Lit. The Fugitive Slave Act was meant to slice the Gordian Knot of Southerners demanding their property back and Northerners at best refusing to see human beings as property or at least wanting nothing to do with the sordid business. It failed to do so, radicalizing the North like nothing before. Mind you, I shouldn't refer to Northerners and Southerners since Delbanco again and again offers up a nuanced perspective on all the players in this drama. Front and center are the men and women who risked their lives for freedom. Their numbers were small in comparison to those who remained enslaved, but every person who escaped made a lie of those who defended the peculiar institution. And every time someone up North was forced to personally uphold the Constitution or uphold their conscience they were pushed to grapple with slavery like never before. It's a long and complicated story. But the closer Delbanco gets to the Civil War, the more intriguing the tale and the more fascinating his argument. Delbanco sheds new light on those caught in the middle of these passions, saying it's too easy to celebrate those who were 100% right and denounce those who were 100% wrong. He repeatedly puts in context the moral dilemma of those who struggled with respecting the law of the land but yearning for it to be different. And when the war begins, escaped men who offered to fight or help in any way with battle at hand turned the war by the North to preserve the union into a war that must and would end slavery. Delbanco rescues from indifference many figures caught up in the tide and sheds new light on the familiar ones, like Abraham Lincoln. The result is a welcome and refreshing work of insight on the most examined chapter in US history. -- Michael Giltz
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Most history books covering the period from the Revolution to the Civil War are written from the white person's perspective. Whether looking at it from the south or the north, pro- or antislavery, events are often told as if African Americans sat silently awaiting their rescue. I love that this book flips all that upside down, showing us how slaves and free blacks both worked together and clashed during this period. We're shown how and why the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, the resulting problems for all citizens, and the ever-widening divide between the southerners clinging to their right to "own" people and the northerners growing inability to look away. And, maybe most importantly, we're shown how African Americans rose up and demanded change.

Throughout the narrative, the author makes some compelling references to current events, inadvertently reminding us that maybe we haven't moved as far from our dark past as we'd like to think. He gives us much to think about, not least of which being how a country founded on freedom and personal liberty could ever legitimize the right to own another person.

While the subject matter is dense and complex, the writing style is engaging. I felt like I was transported back to this tumultuous time.

I'd like to see this book as required reading for every high school student. And maybe those students should then pass the book on to their parents. We need to acknowledge the fissures that divided our country have shifted but haven't healed. This book goes a long way to showing us the how and why.
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I appreciate this as a part of the growing area of popular historical non-fiction that is contextualizing the role that resistance among enslaved people played in catalyzing the conflict of the Civil War. This book helps reclaim our public memory & narrative on the true level of resistance that enslaved people enacted, which not only changed their personal lives, but also drove the forces of national policy and dialogue leading up to the Civil War
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This book is simply amazing. It is well written and researched and an engaging read. The author covers the time period from the Revolution to the Civil War and the struggles endured by slaves seeking freedom, maintaining freedom and those who could not escape the harsh environment in which they were kept. He makes excellent use of qoutes from the many different players involved during the time period including escaped slaves helping to bring clarity to the subject.

I recommend this book for anyone who wants a definitive book on the issues of slavery in the United States.

I received a free Kindle copy of The War Before the War by by Andrew Delbanco courtesy of Net Galley  and  Penquin Books, the publisher. It was with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon and my fiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages.

I requested this book as the description interested me and I am an avid reader of american history. This is the first book by the author that I have read.
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4.5 stars.  During a time when the strife between the abolitionists in the North and the slaveholders in the South, the Fugitive Slave Act was meant to appease the latter to the moral outrage of the former.  As slaves escaped to the North, it became Federal Law that they must be apprehended and returned to the South.  This book posits that this began the march that ended in the Civil War.  To my mind, this extremely well-written and researched book does an excellent job in showing just how hard and long the politicians fought to keep the Union together despite the horrors of slave life and how even just a tiny twist of fate along the way would have had huge repercussions for slavery.  This is not always an easy book to read, as harrowing descriptions of violence against slaves and failed escape along with quotations filled with racism, hate and unwavering support for slavery (even from those that in retrospect are viewed in a sympathetic light) are difficult.  This is an important read, though, as we currently deal with deep political division along with speech filled with racism and hate.  It is important to remember where the precedent begins and the many steps and missteps our country has taken to lead us to the where we are now.  I received a digital ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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I can't recommend this book enough. It was a capitvating read in its own right, but the depth the author goes into adds even more enjoyabilty. I learned so much from it, and even had a whole conversation about what I had learned with a friend the other day. The topic is timeless,  and sadly still applies today. The author makes compelling references to modern events without being political. Modern references and comparisons vary from Trump, to Vietnam, to the Iraq war and make the comparison without judgement on the topic, in a way that helps the reader understand the historical mindset. The North and South are both portrayed as flawed, and no one side is held up to be perfect or completely racially sensitive. Actual, human reasons are given as motives for slave owners, and abolitionists alike, which we can understand. Questions like,  "why would people obessed with freedom have slaves?" or "What started the civil war?" are fairly answered. if you want to learn about the lead up to the civil war in an informative and easy to read manner, this is definately the book to do so with.
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