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Anisfield-Wolf Winner Andrew Delbanco on 'War Before the War'

Andrew Delbanco [Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards]

There was a problem at the very beginning of the American experiment, argues scholar Andrew Delbanco in his book, “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War.”

It is true that the colonies decided to break away from the British Empire to form a new nation. “But there was a deeper truth to the point that, fundamentally, we were two countries,” he said.

For the former southern colonies, slavery was the bedrock of the economy. In the north, which in many ways was complicit and benefitted from slavery, the institution was “clearly on the road to extinction.”

“How did you have one country where you could be enslaved in one part of it, but you could not be in another part? That raised the question of what would be the status of a human being who fled from the slave states to the free states?” Delbanco said. That became a fundamental, recurring political and moral issue that runs through the first 75 years of our existence as a nation, and I felt that was a story that needed to be told.”

The story was told so well in “The War Before the War” that Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, was honored with the 2019 Anisfield Wolf Book Award for nonfiction.

Delbanco examines the compromises made by those who opposed slavery to form the Republic and to attempt to keep it together before the Civil War -- driven by the issue of slavery -- nearly destroyed the union.

Though fugitive slaves aren’t mentioned in the Constitution, they’re covered by Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3: “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 labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.”

The clause had no teeth -- for example, who would do the delivering? -- and so the fugitive slave problem persisted until 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. It was another compromise, one about which President Abraham Lincoln expressed displeasure, but said, “I bite my lip and keep quiet.”

“The great irony of this event, which makes it -- I’m not sure this is quite the right way to put it -- good material for storytelling, is that it was designed to hold the country together, but, of course,  what it ended up doing is drive the country apart,” Delbanco said. 

Andrew Delbanco accepts the 2019 Ansfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction for his book, “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War ” Thursday in a ceremony at Playhouse Square's State Theatre .




Mike McIntyre is the executive editor of Ideastream Public Media.