Provocative, sweeping study of America’s original sin—slavery—in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In January 1850, writes Delbanco (American Studies/Columbia Univ.; The Abolitionist Imagination, 2012, etc.) early on in this book, a Virginia senator named James Mason introduced what would become the Fugitive Slave Act, justifying the law constitutionally. “From the point of view of its proponents,” writes the author, “it was a new attempt to solve an old problem: slavery is a condition from which the enslaved will seek to escape.” Slaves fled from George Washington’s farms after the Revolution, and they fled in uncountable numbers in the years after that. Writes Delbanco, 1851 would see a record number of slaves being captured under the terms of the new law, which obliged nonslaveholding states to participate in the return of escapees to bondage; a handful of that number were freed, but most were returned either judicially or without due process. “Opponents regarded compliant officials with disgust and treated them with derision,” writes the author, but even so, efforts to help slaves freeing captivity were improvisational, such as the Underground Railroad, “a loose confederation of independent cells of which the membership was sometimes a single person making a snap decision to hide a runaway rather than turn him in.” Meanwhile, South and North struggled to expand or contain slavery in the new territories of the West, contributing to the conditions leading to secession and war. The overarching point of Delbanco’s narrative is the legal complicity of various federal institutions, from the first constitutional conventions to laws passed just before and even during the Civil War. As the author observes, Lincoln seemed torn about how to dismantle slavery legally in the months leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation; it wasn’t until June 1864, in a “belated act of formal recognition of what the war had already accomplished," that Congress repealed the Fugitive Slave Act.
Essential background reading for anyone seeking to understand the history of the early republic and the Civil War.