Book Reviews - Autumn 2018

The Runaway Question

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How people fleeing bondage helped transform the nation

By Louis P. Masur | September 4, 2018
Newspapers often carried notices for the return of runaways, like this one from a February 1851 edition of the Alexandria Gazette. (Wikimedia Commons)

The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War by Andrew Delbanco; Penguin, 464 pp., $30

Try as they did to define people as property, early American slaveholders knew that the enslaved had volition. Not surprisingly, various measures over the decades required that bonded laborers be restored to their owners, but although many people supported these laws, others resisted them. Runaway slaves forced Americans to take sides. As Andrew Delbanco shows in this wide-ranging, thought-provoking volume, slaves who sought to self-emancipate via escape transformed the law, politics, and culture of the United States in the decades between the Revolution and Civil War.

Delbanco, a distinguished scholar and literary critic at Columbia University, opens by considering a twofold problem: how to resolve the antagonism between advocates and opponents of slavery, and what to do when law and conscience diverge. The Founders compromised on slavery, and one of their agreements was the mandate in Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution, which stated that persons held to labor in one state who escaped to another “shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” (Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for example, advertised for the return of their runaways.) The clause’s passive-voice construction, however, left much uncertainty. Who would do the delivering? The states? The federal government? Bounty hunters?

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