Migrant Slaves, Sanctuary Cities and the Coming of the Civil War

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Andrew Delbanco, professor of American studies at Columbia University, has written a new book: “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War.”

Like any good history, his tale of American social and political polarization over slavery, which led inexorably to civil war, offers fresh perspective on the present as well as the past. I interviewed him, via email, over several days in October.

Wilkinson: You wrote a book about a deeply polarized nation in which an old, race-based order rooted in the American South, but with influence and allies nationwide, fought to maintain its social, political and economic hierarchies. What made you think such a story might be relevant to the current era?

Delbanco: Your question reminds me of my high school teacher who, whenever we read a classic poem or story that connected to some current news, would say with a flash of irony, “You see how well the course is planned!”

I didn’t start out to write about the present, but the deeper I got into the story, the more contemporary it felt: entrenched racial hatred and injustice; the collapse of civility in Congress; mainstream political parties coming apart; cities declaring themselves sanctuaries for illegal immigrants (fugitive slaves); the left, which had once scorned states’ rights, now claiming that principle against what it regarded as a predatory federal government controlled by the right. 

I tried to write with fidelity to the alien complexities of the past, but I’m a believer in John Dewey’s view that “knowledge of the past” is most significant “when it enters into the present.”

Wilkinson: The parallels between the 19th-century battle over fugitive slaves and the contemporary conflict over undocumented immigrants are striking. There were basically 19th century “sanctuary cities” for fugitives, along with states and localities that refused to use their police powers to enforce the federal law on returning fugitives to owners. Leaving aside larger conflicts over slavery, was there room in the 1850s for a compromise dealing specifically with fugitives?

Delbanco: Through the 1830s and 1840s, Southern slave owners accused abolitionists of enticing their slaves with false promises of a better life in the North. Some slaves who managed to escape to a free state became public figures — notably Frederick Douglass – who attacked their former owners in speeches and writings with what Southerners considered slander. Meanwhile, as tension mounted over the question of whether slavery would be permitted in the Western territories won in the Mexican War (1846-48), the issue of fugitive slaves moved to the center of the sectional conflict. 

In 1850, Congress made a last-ditch effort to compromise over a whole host of issues, starting with the territorial question. White Southerners were outraged that the federal government could restrict their right to carry human property anywhere they liked, while white Northerners — for reasons ranging from moral outrage at slavery to sheer bigotry against blacks — were appalled that slavery could spread beyond the South.

The linchpin of the deal that Congress struck was the Fugitive Slave Act, signed by President Millard Fillmore on Sept. 18, 1850. For the first time, the federal government would intervene to enforce the constitutional principle that slave owners could recover their “absconded” human property. A new class of federal “commissioners” was empowered to seize suspected fugitives, to determine without due process whether they had run away and to return them forcibly to owners. The new law put citizens of free states on notice that if they tried to obstruct enforcement of the law by giving shelter to fugitives, or by interfering with officers hunting them down, they would be committing a federal crime. 

Unintended consequences abounded. Instead of pacifying the nation, the Fugitive Slave Law inflamed public opinion in the North, bringing previously neutral people into the antislavery camp and radicalizing those who already held antislavery feelings. For the first time, white people in the North were forced to confront their personal complicity in the crime of slavery — not only because they bought goods (sugar, rice, cotton clothing) produced by slaves, or because Northern banks financed slave owners, or because Northern textile mills wove cotton into cloth, but because they were now required to stand aside or even cooperate in the seizure and deportation of men and women who had run for freedom — in some cases, neighbors who had lived in the North for many years.

The Fugitive Slave Law made it impossible for anyone to pretend that slavery was only a Southern problem. Resistance to the law spread rapidly through the North; imprisoned fugitives were sprung from prison by biracial mobs; senators who had supported the act were denounced as children of Satan; calls for disunion arose in the North as well as the South. 

So much for compromise! In retrospect, the Fugitive Slave Act looks very much like the spark that lit the fuse that led to civil war. 

Wilkinson: Describe the moral arguments mustered on behalf of the opposing sides. 

Delbanco: Hard as it is to believe, there were indeed “moral” arguments on both sides of the slavery question. Toward the end of the Civil War, Lincoln said of North and South that “both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” The same was true long before the war. 

On the basis of both religion and the pseudo-science of their time, white Southerners argued that black people were inferior creatures, childlike beings who needed to be protected by their natural masters. White Northerners countered that the “higher law” of God and nature required people of conscience to defy any man-made law that debased human beings to the status of things. In short, both sides thought they had God and truth on their side. 

As for the specific issue of fugitive slaves, Southerners appealed to the Bible to make the case for returning them to slavery (Paul’s Epistle to Philemon) while Northerners invoked the same Bible as mandating sanctuary for those who craved freedom (Deuteronomy 23: 15-16). 

In the end, the issue came down to the fundamental question of whether slaves were human beings or mobile property no different from a horse or cow. The very concept of slavery was based on the latter. No doubt some slave owners treated their slaves “well” — as defined by reasonable work hours, adequate diet, care during sickness and even a degree of mutual respect.

Yet the radical reduction of human beings to property could never be mitigated by personal decency. The fact that slaves kept running for freedom against high odds, at risk of severe punishment, and in many cases, in the face of unwelcoming Northerners (both white and black), disproved again and again the heinous lie that black people were less than human.

It’s always worthwhile to listen to Lincoln, who, with typical brevity, said, “people, of any color, seldom run unless there be something to run from.” Few people have ever voluntarily undertaken an arduous emigration unless some harsh condition drives them to it. The difference, of course, between illegal internal migration in the 19th century and illegal international migration in the 21st century is that slaves were fleeing within a nation where freedom of movement was a right guaranteed to everyone except them. 

After the Civil War, and after the failure of Reconstruction in the South, huge numbers of black people — not yet fully free yet free enough to take themselves from where they were born – sought a better life in the North. From the late 19th century until the late 20th century, waves of children and grandchildren of slaves did what very few of their forebears had been able to do. They fled — if not from slavery, then from its bitter legacy in Jim Crow laws and white contempt, which could sometimes be almost as bad as slavery itself, except the escape route was no longer closed.

If you were to push me to make a parallel with the immigrant problem today, I’d say that just as today’s anti-immigrant fever is more about perceptions (immigrants are criminals and job-stealers) than facts (immigrants take jobs that native-born Americans won’t take), so was the struggle over fugitive slaves. In numbers, the fugitive slave problem was not very significant — a few thousand each year escaped compared with millions who remained enslaved. Yet the rage of slave owners and the passion of abolitionists were driven to new heights by the spectacle of brave and desperate human beings seeking to escape from bondage to freedom. 

Wilkinson: I was struck by your discussion in the book of slave narratives, which became both a popular literary form and a political cudgel in the 19th century. (Immigrant narratives may have some similar effects today.) How was this literature commandeered by abolitionists? And how effective was it as literature and as propaganda?

Delbanco: W.H. Auden famously remarked that “Poetry makes nothing happen” — by which I think he meant that poetry does not provoke social upheaval or political change. That’s probably a fair statement about literature in general, the effects of which are more likely to be personal than public. 

But the fugitive slave memoirs that poured from abolitionist presses from the 1830s to the 1860s were an exception. They have since become part of our literature, and while no one can say exactly what they caused to happen, they certainly inflamed both sides in the slavery crisis to new heights of passion.

Many Southerners attacked the books as slanderous lies ghost-written by white abolitionists. Many Northerners found in them testimony to the resilient humanity of people subjected to inhuman conditions. Some of the best — by William Grimes, William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs — had the complexity of literature in their portrayals of conflict within the hearts of some slave owners and within the authors’ own minds over such questions as when to resort to violence or falsehood in the service of freedom and truth, whether to embrace or reject the Christian religion in the name of which they had been enslaved, whether to hope for dignity in a society that treated them, for the most part, with contempt. 

Today, fugitive slave narratives are read in many college classes — yet it’s hard to recreate the sense of the shock they delivered in their own time. When they were first published, they were weapons in a war of words that foreshadowed the real war soon to come. 

When they first appeared, they revealed a world long hidden behind myths about kindly masters and grateful slaves. Today they are archival records of a world long gone. They therefore pose a challenge to us to read them as best we can as if we were living in the dark times to which they give witness. In writing “The War Before the War,” with the help of these and many other sources, it was my hope to bring that era alive so that readers could better understand the struggle to destroy slavery, and the vast work of remediation that remains to be done.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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