The War Before the War

Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War
Narrated by: Ari Fliakos
Length: 13 hrs and 40 mins
Categories: History, Americas
4.5 out of 5 stars (126 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

"Excellent...stunning." (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

The devastating story of how fugitive slaves drove the nation to Civil War.

A New York Times Notable Book Selection

Winner of the Mark Lynton History Prize

Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

A New York Times Critics' Best Book

A New York Times Critics' Best Book

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 proved that the "united" states was actually a lie. Fugitive slaves exposed the contradiction between the myth that slavery was a benign institution and the reality that a nation based on the principle of human equality was in fact a prison-house in which millions of Americans had no rights at all. By awakening Northerners to the true nature of slavery, and by enraging Southerners who demanded the return of their human "property", fugitive slaves forced the nation to confront the truth about itself.

By 1850, with America on the verge of collapse, Congress reached what it hoped was a solution - the notorious Compromise of 1850, which required that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters. Like so many political compromises before and since, it was a deal by which white Americans tried to advance their interests at the expense of black Americans. Yet the Fugitive Slave Act, intended to preserve the Union, in fact set the nation on the path to civil war. It divided not only the American nation, but also the hearts and minds of Americans who struggled with the timeless problem of when to submit to an unjust law and when to resist.

The fugitive slave story illuminates what brought us to war with ourselves and the terrible legacies of slavery that are with us still.

©2018 Andrew Delbanco (P)2018 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"A valuable book, reflective as well as jarring...Delbanco, an eminent and prolific scholar of American literature, is well suited to recounting...the most violent and enduring conflict in American history." (Sean Wilentz, New York Times Book Review)

"Delbanco...excavates the past in ways that illuminate the present. He lucidly shows [how] in the name of avoiding conflict...the nation was brought to the brink and into the breach. This is a story about compromises - and a riveting, unsettling one at that." (Jennifer Szalai, New York Times)

"Sweeping...stirring...Delbanco relates many thrilling escape-and-rescue episodes.... Well worth reading...for those interested in exploring the roots of today's social problems and learning about early efforts to resolve them." (David Reynolds, Wall Street Journal)

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    5 out of 5 stars

a must-read to understand race in America today

it is impossible to understand race and racism in American Life without understanding its Origins in slavery. For that reason alone this book is essential reading. beyond that it illuminates the long understated role of fugitive slaves in building the Abolitionist Movement, and ultimately precipitating along with territorial issues the Civil War. the author makes no pretense of neutrality and his compassion for the oppressed slaves is heard throughout. But he also shows unusual empathy towards moderates in the North who worried that a war might just as easily prolong slavery as ended it. notably, throughout the book he warns against the smugness of hindsight in interpreting the actions of moral people of Goodwill who differed sharply and who in no way could predict the future.

2 people found this helpful

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Fantastic listen

A great "read" for people who are into history of 19th century American. This book aptly describes the political and moral debates that raged as a lead up to the Civil War over fugitive slaves and slavery itself. As I was listening to the description of the moral justification for and against slavery, all I could think about was how close we are to those times. It’s only 155 years or so after the Civil War. If you want to have a better understanding of the status of race in present day United States, listen to this book.

1 person found this helpful

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Startlingly informative!

There were facts in this book I'm sure many people don't know. Sad and scary at the same time but also strengthening. If my ancestors survived Slavery, I can survive anything.

3 people found this helpful

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Wow!

As a black American who has been confused about exactly why the civil war was fought. This book was the most concise account of what really happened that I’ve ever heard. It cleared up some myths and solidified some long held beliefs. It was so emotionally draining to hear the way my ancestors were treated. And to hear the unabashed truth of the feeling that persist in America to this day. Was absolutely mind blowing and should stand as a lesson to us all. If we don’t learn from our past mistakes we are doomed to repeat them. So much of what I see today in modern politics I thought was unique. Now I see is nothing more then the status quo that’s existed from America’s inception. There are those who felt America was theirs. And that black people are only fit to live in a permanent second class. This book spelled it out in spectacular fashion. The hatred, cruelty and injustice that white America inflicted upon my ancestors. While all the while fighting for it’s own freedom. And claiming to be a nation of laws that believes in God. Is the most jaw dropping hypocritical thing I have ever witnessed. Caste pride is a powerful drug that enables its partakers to justify anything. As long as the end result is they maintain a playing field. That mostly benefits them and that they can maintain strict control over. Unbelievably a vast portion of this country will even follow a demigod. Down the road to ruin if they think they and only they will remain in absolute power.

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Wiping out Ignorance

I have studied American History for decades but Delbanco opens concepts and connections I have never linked to my understanding of the major themes that I now realize were missed, especially the plight of the black Americans who suffered and still suffer the wretched pain of slavery and its aftermath.
This was very engrossing and I will incorporate it to my collection of valid reference books.

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Finchallenging history of a critically important topic

Excellent mix of detailed presentation with morally informed analysis of the implications of action and inaction. As an anti racist adult Northerner with deep Southern roots and an education in the pre-1968 South, I know a lot and learned more.
THANKS.

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So much to think about...

Perhaps the most important book I have read in the last decade. I now need to pursue this topic much more in depth, no matter how painful. Bravo to the author.

1 person found this helpful

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Great promise greater disappointment

The subject of this book is by far the most troubling of America’s history. So it was with great expectation the reading of it began.

However, already in the author’s introduction, where he effectively draws equivalency between his subject of slavery and the election of an American President with less than a majority of the popular vote, it is clear that the author has a political agenda which goes beyond the subject of this book.

This bias is reinforced by an arrogant writing style, which also is reflected in the performance of the narrator.

This agenda emerges many places throughout the book - far to many! This is unfortunate as it detracts from a crucially important subject in America’s history, a subject which despite improvements remain unresolved.

The author has made a commendable effort to research the history surrounding the Fugitive Slave Laws, and he deserves credit for that.

I had greater expectations for this book. Unfortunately the author and his political bias detracted from this expectation being fulfilled.

7 people found this helpful

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Authors current political views dimished the book.

Really could have been a great book but the author interjected his liberal views into the book which wasn't needed. How does one add Trump, GWB, Iraq war and several other items into a book on fugitive slave law? Well at least he left out MMGW.

Also the reader read parts in a way to make you even more angry over the subject, I really don't think that was needed at all. The subject matter alone was very emotional and didn't need the reader adding to it.

A much better book was:
No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding by Sean Wilentz

5 people found this helpful

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All need to know this story; we still suffer!

We suffer as a nation because of the unfinished task. We shall overcome some day, PLEASE.

1 person found this helpful