Over the past few decades, the realities of slavery have become more central to the stories Americans are willing to tell themselves about the early history of their nation. The story of the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850, and the resistance to this has become one of the most told stories of the rush to the Civil War. The heroes of the period have become the people on the Underground Railroad and the villains the people attempting to chase these freedom lovers down and return them to bondage.
Andrew Delbanco builds on this momentum and seeks to place fugitive slaves and those who wanted to bring them back to captivity at the center of American history going all the way back to the American Revolution. While there’s not a lot of new material here for historians, for the general public, Delbanco, an American Studies professor at Columbia, provides a very strong and readable narrative that will sate your need for a good history as you weather this endless quarantine.
What always struck me about the South before the Civil War is how much it overplayed its hand, ultimately destroying slavery decades before it would have gone away had those states not seceded. Nothing was more overwrought than the issue of fugitive slaves. Delbanco notes that as of 1850, maybe 1,000 slaves a year reached the north, out of a population that was by then nearing 4 million people. This was a trivial number of people compared to the economic engine that was slavery. And yet, slaveholders could not let this go. One big reason for this, as it was for much of their overreaction, was their sense of honor. They saw themselves as the kings of their world and this kind of defiance was simply unacceptable, an insult to their manhood and their control over their domain.
What makes this even more inexplicable is that the vast majority of slaves never had any real hope to escape to freedom. If you lived on the border with the north, sure. If you were an urban slave in St. Louis or Memphis or New Orleans, maybe you could get lucky and stowaway on a boat or find a sympathetic boat captain, but this was highly unlikely. A lucky few made it to Seminole Florida early in American history or to Mexico later. But the if you lived in Arkansas or Alabama? You might escape for awhile, and many did. But you weren’t going to make it to the north. And yet, despite this, southern politicians and slaveowners consistently alienated the northern states unnecessarily. Their aggressiveness slowly angered northerners who really didn’t care about black people one way or another, doing a lot more work than abolitionists could to turn public opinion. With the debate over the Fugitive Slave Act and the ridiculous overreaching to enforce it, such as the gigantic escort of federal troops to send Anthony Burns out of Boston in 1854, northern outrage only grew. By the time of Lincoln’s election, southern planters were demanding a national crusade against escaped slaves and northern whites, many of whom were extremely racist themselves, simply were not going to give it to them because it violated their own sense of honor around freedom and the hard work these self-emancipated slaves had done in their new communities.
As a literary critic, Delbanco gives the literary world of the time a perhaps outsized role in shaping the debate, but on the other hand, Emerson and Hawthorne are also some of our most useful entrypoints into this long ago period. Moreover, the fugitive slaves themselves added significantly to antebellum literature, no one more than Frederick Douglass, who gets plenty of attention here. And even if those slave narratives were very much pitched to a white female reformist audience, leading to a sameness of stories and an editing of lives to fit a specific aim, these are still invaluable additions to our national literary canon, as well as amazing documents of freedom. In fact, I probably think more highly of this literature than Delbanco, who dismisses most of it as propaganda. It was of course.
Again, Delbanco isn’t offering much new here. This is a march through the first period of American history telling stories that are quite familiar to historians. But then lots of popular selling books do this and most of them are not nearly as important politically as this book. It’s great that we have got to the point where you can buy your father this instead of the 397th biography of George Washington or Theodore Roosevelt or yet another book on a World War II military campaign. Those of us who believe in justice needs our popular history too. And Delbanco offers a useful addition to those offerings.