Delbanco’s skills as a literary critic also illuminate the contributions fugitive slaves made to the growing antislavery movement. Although the number of fugitives was relatively small — according to an 1850 survey, only about 1,000 per year reached the North — they disproportionally aggravated the sectional divide. In part, Delbanco argues, the runaways were a continuing symbolic insult to the slaveholders’ honor, as their flight contradicted Southern claims that slavery was a benevolent, paternalist institution. (He might have added that the fugitive slave issue became an effective and distracting wedge for pro-slavery extremists, who deployed it to appeal to conservative Northerners by provoking antislavery radicals to violent paroxysms while playing the victim themselves.) More important, scores of fugitive slaves either wrote or dictated their personal experiences in widely read narratives, most famously the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” which awakened Northern whites to the enormity of Southern slavery.
To his credit, Delbanco does not inflate the literary merits of the slave narratives. Often filtered through the sensibilities of collaborating abolitionists, they amounted, Delbanco writes, to “more than propaganda and less than literature.” (Douglass’s narrative was an exception and two or three others were at least partial exceptions.) But there is no denying the sensation they caused amid the political emergencies of the 1840s and 1850s, “giving voice to people long silenced,” and assailing the pro-slavery propaganda that sustained Northern white complacency.
Delbanco’s literary judgments aside, “The War Before the War” is mainly a straightforward account of events that, although familiar to professional historians, ought to be known by anyone who claims to know anything about American history. In 1787, Southern delegates to the federal Constitutional Convention obtained a fugitive slave clause that called for (albeit vaguely) the capture and return of successful runaways. Over the following six decades, persistent slave escapes tested the ramshackle machinery put in place to halt them. In time, alarmed but emboldened Northern free blacks and their white abolitionist allies formed vigilance committees to ward off slavecatchers, while Northern legislatures began approving so-called personal liberty laws to shield the fugitives.
In 1850, responding to slaveholders’ outcries, Congress passed a Fugitive Slave Act that strengthened the federal mandate for arresting and returning escapees. In a series of shocking confrontations, antislavery Northerners intervened, either to prevent the capture of fugitives or liberate those already in custody. The uproar of these pitched battles — Delbanco’s war before the war — helped turn Northern moderates into abolitionists and temperate Southerners into fire-eaters; at its height in 1854, it prompted President Franklin Pierce to order 1,500 federal troops to escort a single fugitive in Boston named Anthony Burns back into slavery in Virginia. Enforcing the fugitive slave law put the federal government emphatically on the side of slavery over freedom, which hastened the collapse of the national political system, the rise of the antislavery Republican Party and the coming of the war.
Delbanco aims to balance his antislavery allegiances with caution about the smugness that can come with historical hindsight. In some of his earlier writings, this wariness has led him, by my taste, to be a little too charitable to revisionist interpretations that present the Civil War as a product of political failure, a catastrophe, instigated by malcontents, that a more responsible national leadership could have prevented. This view has arisen from an admixture of pacifism and an insistence on diminishing the moral as well as political disaster of slavery; and it has sometimes led its advocates to demonize the abolitionists as the chief fomenters of an unnecessary war. As Delbanco admires the abolitionists, and slights slavery’s terrors not at all, his occasional revisionist musings seem to stem from his horror at the military slaughterhouse, his wonder at whether it could have been avoided and his wariness of sanctimony, including Yankee sanctimony.