The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


The War Before the War: Q&A with Andrew Delbanco

Andrew Delbanco’s latest book, “The War Before the War,” explores American slavery and fugitive slaves, and the role these issues played from the founding of the United States to its disintegration in the years leading up to the Civil War. Delbanco examines the series of compromises created around these issues, and the moral and political complexity surrounding them. 

Cover of "The War Before the War"

BackStory spoke with Andrew Delbanco about the book. The interview has been edited for clarity and is printed in full below. 

BackStory: How did you come to this specific topic of the Fugitive Slave Act and fugitive slaves, and why did you choose to write about it now?

Delbanco: Well, of course the “now” is a little complicated because I’ve been working on this book for almost ten years. The now kind of crept up on me as I was writing, and I must say I didn’t anticipate some of the feelings of parallel with the present. One way to describe fugitive slaves is to say that they were the undocumented immigrants of their time. They were domestic illegal immigrants. Certain cities in the north declared themselves in effect sanctuary cities as citizens confronted the question of what to do in the face of a federal policy with which they deeply disagreed.

Delbanco: Slavery was the festering issue of the first half of the 19th century, but the nation tried to evade it. The reckoning was continually postponed. It was postponed in the Constitution itself when the founders made certain compromises over slavery. It was postponed again in 1820 in the so-called Missouri compromise, and again in 1850, with the Compromise of 1850 at the center of which was the fugitive slave law. It’s not as if this story has not been told before—but it struck me as worth telling with the fugitive slave experience at the center.

BackStory: Let’s touch on one of these main issues of the book or main themes of the book. Could you talk a little bit about this sort of paradox or contradiction that a lot of people faced with the fugitive slave law, and how they dealt with that in various ways?

Delbanco: The fugitive slave law put white northerners—even those with deep antipathy toward slavery– in the position of having to choose between supporting an odious law and risking the disintegration of the nation. Lincoln, for instance, in a letter to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855, wrote that “I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down and returned to their stripes, but I bite my lip and keep quiet.” In that same letter he spoke of northerners having to “crucify” their feelings about slavery in order to preserve the Union. Now many people are shocked or disappointed to learn that Abraham Lincoln, however reluctantly, supported the fugitive slave law—but the fact that he did, not casually or callously, I think, is a clue to the moral dilemma it created.

Delbanco: Lincoln hated slavery, but he loved the union. I don’t think there’s any question about his sincerity in either case. What southerners said to northerners in 1850 was if you don’t guarantee our property interest as the constitution stipulates– the constitution after all included a fugitive slave clause requiring the return of fugitives to those to whom their service or labor was due– if you don’t meet your constitutional responsibilities, then we’re out of here.

Delbanco: Nobody can know in retrospect whether that was a bluff, or whether it really would have happened. We can’t know whether secession would have taken place in 1850. All we know is that there was a compromise and the secessionists wait till 1861– but the historian must try to recapture the uncertainty and anxiety of the moment, when no one could know the future, and when fear for the survival of the Union was real. So people had to make a choice. Do I acquiesce in this morally indefensible law? A law of which Ralph Waldo Emerson said, No one who “was not ready to go on all fours would back this law.”

Delbanco: Emerson took the view, okay, if the union breaks up, so be it. There’s a civilized half of the country and there’s a barbarous half and the time has come for us to go our separate ways. Lincoln didn’t take that view. Lincoln took the view that in the long run, the preservation of the Union would be the path toward the ultimate extinction of slavery. Nobody could imagine exactly how that would happen, but he did believe that breaking up the union would be no victory for the antislavery cause. There was reason in 1850 to believe this: if the south had gone his own way, it might have become a slave based empire expanding into Mexico, into the Caribbean, into Cuba, and that the breakup of the Union might actually have perpetuated slavery rather than curtailed it.

Delbanco: So as a person who teaches literature as well as history, I’m interested in this kind of maddening paradox. On the one hand, we want to condemn the compromisers. We want to say of people like Daniel Webster, for example, who seemed indifferent to the suffering of black people and signed on to this compromise: these are odious people. And yet there’s this paradoxical possibility that if the compromise had not been made, secession would have come earlier, and who knows whether the north would have resisted a southern confederacy in 1850 with military force. Even a decade later, when the South did secede, it was not entirely clear at first that the North would respond with force of arms.

Delbanco: Moreover, there were a lot of people in the north including abolitionists who believed that the south should be allowed to go its own way. So I say to my students, I’m in the confusion business. I’m interested in trying to convey that people in the past, were as uncertain as to what was the right way to behave as we are today, and, like us, they were operating in ignorance of what would be the consequences of their actions.

Delbanco: If ever there was a law with unintended consequences, it was the fugitive slave law of 1850. It was designed to hold the country together, but in fact it had the effect of driving the country apart, and in my book I try to make the case that it lit the fuse that led eventually to the explosion of civil war.

BackStory: And you also talked about is how it sort of expanded federal power to the point where they were able to essentially abolish slavery after the war by creating that precedent, which I thought was really interesting.

Delbanco: Right. Well that’s another paradox, right? We associate the doctrine of states’ rights with the South. The cry of states’ rights has often signified outright racism. John C. Calhoun was a big states’ rights guy who was worried that the federal government would interfere with his property rights as a slave owner. Some of us are old enough to remember when George Wallace and other secessionists put out the cry of states’ rights in defending segregation.

Delbanco: But what happened in 1850 is that southern whites became big fans of the federal government because it took upon itself the authority to enforce the fugitive slave law on behalf of southern slave owners. Meanwhile, New Englanders and other antislavery northerners took over the mantra of states’ rights and said, “What business does the federal government have coming here to Boston or to Syracuse, or to Rochester in order to hunt down our neighbors?”

Delbanco: That was an interesting reversal, and in fact there were some Deep South slave owners like Jefferson Davis who were very skeptical of the fugitive slave law. First of all, they didn’t think it would be enforceable, because they didn’t think that local communities in the North would go along with it, and secondly, they thought it was setting a dangerous precedent by giving so much power to the federal government that could come back to haunt them someday, Davis was right about that. In the post Civil War period, the federal government actually looked to the fugitive slave law as a precedent for trying to establish civil rights for former slaves in the South. So again, it’s a more complicated story than we may tend to think, and I was attracted to its complications.

BackStory: Perhaps it’s that that they had as little idea what was going on as we do now.

Delbanco: Well, there are very few generalizations that we can make with confidence, but I think we can say that no human being has ever known what was going to happen the next day or the next month or the next year. You can make a guess. You can try to calculate the probabilities, but nobody knows what’s going to happen. One of the biggest challenges, I think, in writing about history is to recapture this universal uncertainty. In calling this period the war before the war, I tried to convey the atmosphere of conflict and confusion and bewilderment felt by so many Americans– black people, white people, southerners, northerners, abolitionists, people who tried to stay neutral. Everybody was trying to figure out what was the best path forward to achieve what they believed needed to be achieved.

Delbanco: Nobody anticipated the civil war would come when it came, and as so often with war, nobody anticipated its horror and scope and human cost. I mean, people both north and south said very confidently in the spring of 1861, this isn’t going to last very long, they’ll be back soon. Four years later, according to the latest scholarly estimates, nearly a million people had died. A million in a country of 30 million! You can do the math and imagine what that would mean proportionally today.

Delbanco: Nobody saw that coming and nobody saw, as Lincoln says in his great second inaugural address, that the cause of the war, namely slavery, would end before the war ended. That’s not strictly accurate because slavery persisted until the passage of the 13th amendment to the constitution. But by the third year of the war, it was quite clear that slavery was in the process of being destroyed. Almost nobody wanted that war, and yet it turned out to be the solution to the problem that had been politically impossible to solve.

BackStory: Yeah, war is politics by other means.

Delbanco: Well, I guess you could put it that way, but you also want to remember that many, if not most northerners who committed themselves to the war, after the aggression against Fort Sumter thought of it as a war for preserving the union, not as a crusade for destroying slavery. The mission as it were, changed as the two goals became inextricably connected. It quickly became clear as the union army advanced into confederate territory, the war itself was creating hundreds of thousands of fugitive slaves, and the idea that these people could be returned to a position of servitude became more and more impossible to imagine. So the war itself “solved” the fugitive slave problem by creating so many fugitives that it became clear that there was no going back.

Delbanco: That’s not to say– and Ed Ayers has written very powerfully about this– that slaves who were liberated by the war or set free or set loose might be the better way to put it had an easy time of it. Many had a terrible and terrifying experience. For example, both before and after the battle of Gettysburg, Lee’s army seized and brutalized fugitive slaves and brought back into slavery. Free blacks living in Pennsylvania were kidnapped and enslaved. Nor was the Union army always exactly welcoming to fugitives. They were exploited. They were abused. Women were raped. Conditions in the contraband camps, as they were called, were often dire, and yet at the end of the day it was the war and it was the union army that broke the back of slavery.

Andrew Delbanco is a professor at Columbia University and a 2012 recipient of the National Humanities Medal. He is the author of many notable books, including his latest, “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War.” 

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!