The general consensus about the origins of the Civil War point to one irrevocable catalyst: the institution of slavery in the South. With fine-combed research, Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University and 2012 recipient of the National Humanities Medal, argues that the Fugitive Slave Act was the centralized fuse that sparked the Civil War in The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War.
The practice of slavery was threaded into American life from the United States’ inception. Following the end of the Revolutionary War, leaders in the colonies, including General George Washington, were concerned that Tories leaving the country would take fugitive slaves with them to freedom. Washington himself called for aid in locating his runaway slaves, unknowingly foreshadowing the Fugitive Slave Act.
By the time Lincoln became president, congressional attempts to appease opposing sides on the slavery issue had carved a path toward implosion, culminating in an attempt at uniting a fissured nation that utterly failed: the Compromise of 1850. Its inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Act, which decreed that fugitive slaves must be returned to their master even if they had reached a free state, was the divisive match that lit the powder keg.
As Delbanco convincingly argues, the Fugitive Slave Act not only put a microscope on America’s fractured moral psyche, but its consequences seem to have echoed into the current political and social landscape. Racism, simultaneously an agent of white supremacy and a symptom, routinely shapes national policies and national identity. Ultimately, the Fugitive Slave Act was not a salve for the deepening fissures in the country’s conscience, but a reflection of America’s inability to grapple with its moral ambiguities. In the hands of an author strictly committed to objective, hard-nosed facts, The War Before the War would read as coldly authoritative and dry. Yet Delbanco treats his subject matter as a historical artifact, a sprawling puzzle and psychological case study, viewing America’s past acts as a troublesome blueprint for America’s present and possibly its future.