Why a Story of Fugitive Slaves May Not Just Be History

In light of the current Great Divide, there is no innocent reading of history. We mine every thesis about the Constitutional Convention or the Civil War for evidence of another agenda. History becomes covert commentary on Trump and the Resistance.

So when Andrew Delbanco’s wonderful new book on fugitive slaves in antebellum America landed in my hands, I was sure I was looking at a treatise on the 2010s. Congressional dysfunction. The failure of compromise. A breakdown of the major political parties. Strong movements to affirm that black lives matter. Charges that opponents are “drenched in moralistic self-delight” (93) meeting counter-charges that there is “a higher law than the Constitution” (258) demanding separation from ungodly neighbors. Didn’t I read this in the paper this morning?

In The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, Delbanco is not averse to such comparisons. He’s happy to quote an observation that the South, with all of its commodity wealth from cotton, was the “Saudi Arabia of the early nineteenth century” (206), sporting the same police state tendencies. But he’s cautious about going too far. If anything, he reminds us that it could be much worse:

“Orations, editorials, pamphlets, poems, even sermons, sank to a level of personal invective unmatched before or since. It became standard practice for politicians to call each other devils and whores…By comparison with antebellum politics, our politics, even in the age of Trump, are a model of decorum.” (219)

Still you can’t help feeling a measure of dread at the truth pervading this history: unresolved tensions in the past require a reckoning in the present.

“It’s too much to say that the dispute over fugitive slaves was the cause of the Civil War,” Delbanco says. But it’s not too much to say that the fugitive slave became a living symbol for all that was the cause. The problem was embedded in the nation’s founding documents, especially the Constitution, which could not bring itself to name slavery but nevertheless included a fugitive slave provision. Delbanco documents how northerners recognized even then that the clause was the necessary price to be paid in order to have a nation at all.

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. —Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3, U.S. Constitution

What the Constitution didn’t specify was how it would be enforced, and with a weak federal government in the pre-Civil War era, northern states could take a hands-off approach, insulating them from moral quandaries about sending runaways back to slavery. At the request of President Washington, the Congress took up the question and passed a bill in 1793 that formalized the process of returning fugitive slaves. While the new law did not require northern states to do the enforcement, it “criminalized behavior that had hitherto been largely outside legal constraints” (105) by fining anyone who sought to obstruct a slaveowner from getting a slave back.

Runaway_slaveThe number of fugitives was never large. Delbanco quotes an 1850 survey that “put the number of slaves missing annually at about 1,000 in an enslaved population of over 3 million, or around 0.033 percent.” (24) But as he notes, “the felt significance of fugitive slaves grew far out of proportion to their numbers or the dollars they represented.” (35) 

By the time Congress got around to writing another law on the subject as part of the Compromise of 1850, the country was coming apart and the fugitive slave was the symbol for why. Northerners saw the fugitive as “justice prefigured,” enslaved people liberating themselves in anticipation of a needed emancipation, while southerners viewed the northern resistance to returning fugitives to their owners as “proof of national dysfunction.” (226)

The 1850 compromise only hardened sentiments and imposed a new means of enforcement, one which sent federal enforcement agents into free states to return fugitive slaves.  In the wake of the return of an escaped man, Anthony Burns, from Boston back to slavery in Virginia, Amos Lawrence, a Boston politician noted, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs & waked up stark mad Abolitionists.” (310)

From there the dominoes fall with an air of inevitability—Bleeding Kansas, the demise of the Whigs and rise of the Republicans, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Lincoln’s election, secession, and war. But Delbanco reminds us that none of this was inevitable and the intent and outcome of the war was not foreseen by many if any of the participants at the time. 

Lincoln got it right when, shortly before his death, he called the result of the war “astounding.” So it felt to everyone who experienced it. (381)

Fugitive slaves continued to push at the separating seams, even in the north. While southerners like Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens clearly understood that the South was defending slavery, (note his speech declaring its “cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” (342)), northerners did not begin the war in agreement that they were out to end slavery. 

It took a number of developments along the way to push the Union toward emancipation and fugitive slaves were part of that. A snap decision by Gen. Benjamin Butler, commander at Fort Monroe during the days of Virginia’s secession vote, turned fugitive slaves from the Confederacy into contraband, ‘seized property’ according to the logic of slavery but something new and indeterminate in the eyes of the changing United States. Wherever the northern army went, an army of fugitive slaves appeared with some 400,000 former slaves “living as nominally free persons under the protection of Union troops” by the end of the war. (379)  Over half of the nearly 200,000 black soldiers who served in the Union army were former slaves. (373)

Andrew Delbanco

By the time the fugitive slave law was officially repealed on June 28, 1864, the character and purpose of the war had evolved and constitutional change was on the horizon. Whatever the post-war nation would look like, slavery and the polarizing symbol of the fugitive slave would not be part of its definition, even if the awful legacy of the institution remains to this day.

Like Edward Ayers’ recent book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, Delbanco presents a nuanced picture of Americans in conflict producing unexpected change. Reading it in light of current circumstances, it is both reassuring in its recognition that we have been at cultural, moral, and political impasses before and yet disturbing in its suggestion that our way through one such impasse was a costly, bloody war.

At the least, The War Before the War, is a spotlight on the ways compromise has been used to avoid contradictions that continue to divide us. In some cases it has allowed us to call war peace. Until it can no longer be called anything but war.

Full Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

2 responses to “Why a Story of Fugitive Slaves May Not Just Be History”

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