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

4.33  ·  Rating details ·  97 ratings  ·  34 reviews
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 pro
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published November 6th 2018 by Penguin Press
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Oct 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
Donna Davis
Dec 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history buffs.
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
Brenda Ayala
Nov 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: shelf-awareness
The War Before the War covers everything that led up to the US civil war and how much went into it. A fair portion of it is spent on the Fugitive Slave Act and encompassed the ambivalent feelings many had over slavery. Most importantly, it covered the views of slavery from a variety of standpoints, including ex-slaves, northerners, religious officials, southerners, and loyal slaves.

It was well researched and had a breadth of information to cover, which it did very well. At times it was repetiti
Darcia Helle
Oct 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 proble ...more
Nov 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018, history, audiobooks
Needs more than my usual two or three lines of Goodreads notes and I don't have time for more than two or three lines (later, then) - this is a masterclass in writing nuanced and imaginative history. Along the way, Delbanco includes just enough parallels to our current moment to spark readers' ethical imaginations (and make them squirm in their seats).

Alan Jacobs reviews the book here:
Jan 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
A little repetitive in places, and I had occasional issues with the writing style, but overall a lucid, well-researched, nuanced, and timely read. Highly recommend.
Dec 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
In recent years I have read numerous books on Abolitionism and the Abolitionists, the Underground Railroad, Abraham Lincoln's life and political career and the formation of the Republican Party, etc. Despite this I decided to read The War Before the War for two reasons. First, I have found that any book which gets an overall rating of 4.0+ on Goodreads deserves my consideration. Second, the blurb describing it sounded quite interesting.

I can happily note that I was quite satisfied overall with t
Casey Wheeler
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 anyon
Paul Womack
Jan 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I would give six or more stars if available. This is quite an imposing work of history and social commentary. The characters come alive, with their faults and strenghts, with the moral ambiguities over enslavement many endured in order to preserve the Union, with their passions to see freedom expanded. Terrible as it was, I can only be profoundly grateful the war’s end was the restoration of the Union. I remain sadly perplexed much, much more remains to be done to realize the dream.
Jan 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
I wholeheartedly appreciate an author that isn't afraid to discuss modern times in the context of history. Playing at objectivity and absolute truths is such a bore - and completely untrue when everything is through the lens of humans. I think the portion of the book up to the Civil War was amazing. The last portion lost some focus and felt rushed.
Shane Hawk
Strong work of history. Great writing style.
Delbanco framed much of it around the FSA.
Tons of historical nuance and context.
Recommended for those interested in the events leading up to the American Civil War.
Oct 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: netgalley-books
4.5 stars.
Jul 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 with ...more
Nov 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
United States Constitution Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 otherwise known as the Fugitive Slave Clause: No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.

With the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Clause the framers of our Constitution decided that the only way to f
Dan Downing
Dec 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Not to quibble, but this title would better describe today than pre-1861. What is being discussed is the innate conflict in our Constitution followed by the problems various laws, mostly dealing with fugitive slaves, posed for the Federal Union. And it was all and more than is presented here, over 70 years of tension and rancor between slave and free states. That is the war before the war, the struggle to accommodate the impossible which finally dissolved into open physical warfare, that which i ...more
Steven M Cohen
Dec 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have to say that this is an astonishingly great book. I have read dozens of books on this area of history, the Civil War and the run-up to it, slavery, slaves, abolitionism, Lincoln, etc. I can’t think of a single one that ties this all stuff together more convincingly than Andrew Delbanco’s “War Before the War”.

The author’s decision to refract all this through the lens of the Fugitive Slave clause of the Constitution (identifying this as the first of many compromises on slavery) and subsequen
Dec 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
This would be five stars if the beginning were as good as the end. He took the importance of fugitive slaves to the causes of the civil war from the seed sowing of the declaration to the start of the war. The opening was okay ish but quite frankly there wasn't enough tension until the pressure started ratcheting up with Fredrick Douglass and the slave memoir. Plus there weren't enough voices of freed/fugitive slaves until that point. And it is rather clunky writing in that the quotes he referenc ...more
Dec 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Having overloaded on Saccharine with a period piece about Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's vice president who refused to solidify the gains that Union made with their blood, I paused because I knew that the base of the movie was the incredible myth of the "Lost Cause" in the South. The truth of the war was that one side was willing to hamstring its capitalism in the service of morality while the other wanted to keep the vilest institution ever considered in order to keep one percent of its citizens in ...more
Dec 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
THE WAR BEFORE THE WAR: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. (2018). Andrew Delbanco. ***1/2.
If you have read several other studies on slavery in America – as I have – you will find that there is not much new in this work, although there are always more stories to be told. The narrative is well told, and the information provided is encyclopedic, but…well. If you are looking for one volume in which all the information you need is in one place,
Nov 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2018, nonfiction
This was such an interesting read about the laws relating to slavery before the Civil War and the effects of them. I haven't read such a detailed book yet, that answered questions I had and didn't know I had about the time leading up to the Civil War.

There's hope in this book, I loved each and every story about people fighting against slavery (lawyers are amazing), but there are also so many harrowing stories and sadness. The comparisons to the current American politics are easily made and terri
Jan 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
I'm glad I had the book my mother gave me for Christmas about the leaders in Congress from the War of 1812 through the Compromise of 1850; it gave a good prologue to this in-depth read of the multiple fugitive slave laws that were passed in the 1800s leading up to the Civil War. An excellent read of how anti-slavery lawmakers were stopped in their tracks by a clause in the Constitution allowing for the capture of runaway slaves across state lines.
Dec 02, 2018 rated it it was ok
I learned from the author’s presentation in this book, however tedious the author’s style. The prose with its frequent jabs at the current president and tribal politics in America will rapidly be dated and pose a distraction for future readers. Moreover, statements like “After the war, both sides were obliged, as we say today, to take ownership” fills space and will rapidly become distracting, I hope.
Dec 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a take on slavery in the context of American history that I haven't read much about. The Fugitive Slave Law was a turning point in U.S. history and many times it's glossed over in textbooks. I thought that using the words of former slaves themselves is an important factor in explaining how the law affected everyone.
Bryce Doty
Nov 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Super impressed with this book. I'm an idiot and I know nothing about the world. I've always loved the American Renaissance authors (Emerson, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickenson, etc.) but I had no idea what world they were living in when they were writing. Highly recommend.
Dec 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Delbanco draws a compelling portrait our our country with all it's faults, it's disparate voices, our dark deeds leading up to the Civil War. I listened to this book, narrated by Delbanco in a deliberative, strong cadence. Definitely a good read, not to rushed.
Jan 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Superbly researched. Reads a bit like a textbook. A dark, deep, shameful time in the history of America and other parts of the world. Reprehensible. Unfathomable. The South still embraces this history. Shameful.
Dec 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: general
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Exceptional well researched and written book.
Richard Mounce
Nov 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Incredible book
Dec 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A look at the countdown to the Civil War from the vantage point of the issue that fugitive slaves posed to the integrity of the Union.
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Andrew H. Delbanco (born 1952) is Director of American Studies at Columbia University and has been Columbia's Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities since 1995. He writes extensively on American literary and religious history.
“As one southern-born antislavery activist later wrote, it was a “sad satire to call [the] States ‘United,’” because in one-half of the country slavery was basic to its way of life while in the other it was fading or already gone. The founding fathers tried to stitch these two nations together with no idea how long the stitching would hold.” 0 likes
“Fugitives from slavery ripped open the screen behind which America tried to conceal the reality of life for black Americans, most of whom lived in the South, out of sight and out of mind for most people in the North. Fugitive slaves exposed the contradiction between the myth that slavery was a benign institution and the reality that a nation putatively based on the principle of human equality was actually a prison house in which millions of Americans had virtually no rights at all. By awakening northerners to this grim fact, and by enraging southerners who demanded the return of their “absconded” property, fugitive slaves pushed the nation toward confronting the truth about itself. They incited conflict in the streets, the courts, the press, the halls of Congress, and perhaps most important in the minds and hearts of Americans who had been oblivious to their plight. This manifold conflict—under way long before the first shots were fired in the Civil War—was the war before the war.” 0 likes
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