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The War Before the War: Book summary and reviews of The War Before the War by Andrew Delbanco

The War Before the War

Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War

by Andrew Delbanco

The War Before the War by Andrew Delbanco X
The War Before the War by Andrew Delbanco
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Book Summary

The devastating story of how fugitive slaves drove the nation to Civil War.

For decades after its founding, America was really two nations - one slave, one free. There were many reasons why this composite nation ultimately broke apart, but the fact that enslaved black people repeatedly risked their lives to flee their masters in the South in search of freedom in the North proved that the "united" states was actually a lie. Fugitive slaves exposed the contradiction between the myth that slavery was a benign institution and the reality that a nation based on the principle of human equality was in fact a prison-house in which millions of Americans had no rights at all. By awakening northerners to the true nature of slavery, and by enraging southerners who demanded the return of their human "property," fugitive slaves forced the nation to confront the truth about itself.

By 1850, with America on the verge of collapse, Congress reached what it hoped was a solution - the notorious Compromise of 1850, which required that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters. Like so many political compromises before and since, it was a deal by which white Americans tried to advance their interests at the expense of black Americans. Yet the Fugitive Slave Act, intended to preserve the Union, in fact set the nation on the path to civil war. It divided not only the American nation, but also the hearts and minds of Americans who struggled with the timeless problem of when to submit to an unjust law and when to resist.

The fugitive slave story illuminates what brought us to war with ourselves and the terrible legacies of slavery that are with us still.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review, Provocative, sweeping study of America's original sin…Essential background reading for anyone seeking to understand the history of the early republic and the Civil War." - Kirkus

"This well-documented and valuable work makes clear how slavery shaped the early American experience with effects that reverberate today." - Publishers Weekly

"This delightfully readable book is thronged with stories of heroes whose names may escape us, but whose flights from bondage helped to revolutionize the country we are called upon to defend today." - Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard and author of Stony the Road

"The great value of Andrew Delbanco's interpretively edifying The War Before the War is in centering the cause of the great irrepressible conflict of 1860 in the many hearts-and-minds of otherwise indifferent, sympathetic, uncertain northern men and women who finally found enforced complicity in the South's 'peculiar institution' intolerable and a war for human ideals inescapable." - David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography

"In The War Before the War, one of America's most eloquent scholars draws readers into the compelling story of how the North-South struggle over runaway slaves prepared the way for the Civil War...This is a political, legal, and above all, human, story with powerful resonance today." - Dan Carter, author of Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South

"Timely, incisive, deeply researched...Delbanco's swift-moving yet powerfully nuanced narrative offers insights into the institution of slavery and the political maneuvering that led up to the Civil War. This book is essential reading today, at a historical moment that demands unflinching reflection on founding truths." - Elizabeth D. Samet, author of Soldier's Heart and editor of the Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

"The War Before the War is a beautifully researched work of scholarship and one of the best examinations of the bleak, complex, macabre world of American slavery that I've read....This is a work every American needs to read." - Charles Johnson, National Book Award-winning author of Middle Passage

"With a rare combination of in-depth historical research and an unmatched command of nineteenth-century American literature, Andrew Delbanco tells the story of the coming of the Civil War and emancipation...an original rendering of the nation's greatest crisis." - Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and Pulitzer Prize Winning author of Reconstruction and The Fiery Trial

"Taking us to barbarous plantations and bustling city streets, into raucous courtrooms and the restive halls of Congress, Delbanco brilliantly reveals parallels with the humanitarian crises and cultural clashes of our own times." - Martha Hodes, author of Mourning Lincoln

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Author Information

Andrew Delbanco

Andrew Delbanco is the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University. Author of many notable books, including College, Melville, The Death of Satan, Required Reading, The Real American Dream, and The Puritan Ordeal, he was recently appointed president of the Teagle Foundation, which supports liberal education for college students of all backgrounds. Winner of the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates, he is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. In 2001, Andrew Delbanco was named by Time as "America's Best Social Critic." In 2012, President Barack Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal.

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