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

New York Times Notable Book Selection 

Winner of the Mark Lynton History Prize 

Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

Winner of the Lionel Trilling Book Award 

New York Times Critics' Best Book

"Excellent... stunning."—Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book tells the story of America’s original sin—slavery—through politics, law, literature, and above all, through the eyes of enslavedblack people who risked their lives to flee from bondage, thereby forcing the nation to confront the truth about itself. The struggle over slavery divided not only the American nation but also the hearts and minds of individual citizens faced with the timeless problem of when to submit to unjust laws and when to resist. The War Before the War illuminates what brought us to war with ourselves and the terrible legacies of slavery that are with us still.

Book Details
Andrew Delbanco
Book Format:
Publication Date:
05 Nov 2019
  • B Corp
  • Black Owned
  • Gives Back
  • Veteran Owned
This is a brilliant book. It's odd, though. Every once in a while the writing quality lags with impossible to understand sentences. Fortunately, this is rare because the book in general reads well and thoughtfully discusses an important issue.
Combining diverse accounts and sources and evenhanded analysis expected of a professional historian, Delbanco presents a comprehensive and fascinating analysis of one of the fundamental tensions born of slavery and our nation's founding - the extent to which non-slavery states were required to actively assist the perpetuation of slavery through the capture and return of fugitive slaves. Delbanco writes clearly and engagingly - with editorial asides to current events - to show the inherent tension between the North and the South and how fundamental the issue of slavery was to defining the trajectory of the country over its first 100 years. For anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the extent to which slavery shaped our nation (although the book is light on the economic significance and interdependencies of slavery to the larger economy) and how so much of that echoes down to the present, this book is well worth your time and purchase.
Excellent review of the battles against slavery prior to the beginning of the Civil War, with special emphasis on the Fugitive Slave Act, as well as the various compromises in the first half of the 19th century.
The War Before the War is a fascinating study of the controversy of holding men and women in slavery. Extremely detailed, full of politics, human nature, legal viewpoint and greed. It was a well rounded view of all points for and against slavery which lead to the split of America and the ensuing civil war.

Especially interesting was the breath of information on slaves, Ex-slaves, fear, and the reasoning of many leaders who felt that slavery must remain for the society to have a solid foundation. The theory was that every society needed a low level work force under the poor whites in order to buffer them from being lower on the caste system.

The book also expounds on the reason for many pushing to remove freed slaves back to Africa. So many interesting points, reference to many groups organized to uplift ex-slaves, and run away slaves. You will hear from so many men responsible for making the hard decisions, trying to placate their constituents, neighbors, and reverse the constitutional right to being born free. Brilliant, necessary, and a great read!
A taught narrative of the prelude to our great trauma. What a different attitude I now have of Lincoln and how tried to steer an almost impossible path between the union and the need to recognize human dignity and the meaning of freedom inherent in our revolution.
The book from start to finish is an modern day political op-ed, poorly sold off as history. The book is sparse on footnotes and endnotes for a reason! The author offers no insights that aren't common knowledge and tries to compare political struggles from the mid 19th century to contemporary ones. The author frames everything through his bias rather than making any attempts at objective analysis. The author espouses modern Far Left talking points (for example he compared immigration enforcement to 19th century slave catchers), and he demonstrates an absolute aversion to proper citation their work can't be taken seriously as a work of history. It is a 400 page New York Times op-ed that isn't worth anyone's time.
This book is important in providing major events in the history of slavery from early America through the Civil War.
After reading the inside jacket and introduction, I had the theme of this book. The rest of it was a lot of details supporting that thesis. A good book for research, it leads you to proof of the thesis.
A very disturbing, enlightening book. I knew about slavery, of course. Just not the full depth of how low America could go, in its treatment of slaves. What stands out in my head, is an ad written to recover a slave. This is an incomplete quote, "I went and burned a letter into the face of this black woman, and she up and ran away!" go figure!
Very well written, disturbing, account of the very dark side of American History, and the story of what lead up to the Civil War!
An extraordinary look at the history of "the slavery question" that puts to rest any of the false narratives. Slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and indeed, the cause of much of the strife from before out inception as a nation. Historian Andrew Delbanco describes in detail how the Founders dealt with the existing presence of slavery in half a nation that was created based on the idea that "all men are created equal." He traces the compromises made by the Founders in order to gather the disparate views into a national Constitution, and the attempts to restrict the expansion of slavery until such time as its ultimate extinction under its own weight of immorality. He discusses the various compromises during the first half of the 19th century to allow slaveholding states' to continue slavery while seeing it expand rather than contract. He shows how the Compromise of 1850, and in particular the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave law, led to a fundamental crisis between the choice of freedom and the choice to withhold others from their freedom. And the war came.

This is a must-read book for all Americans. We as a nation must understand the role of slavery in our history...and how the residual effects of it still affect us today.
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