The legacy of fugitive slave provisions in the antebellum United States is often lost in contemporary retellings of the history of slavery.
Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, wants to ensure that the lasting impact of fugitive slaves – and the impact of those who sought, often successfully, to terminate their escapes – does not become forgotten. His book, “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War,” details the complex and grim history of enslaved individuals’ escapes from servitude and the legislation and politicians that prevented these attempts.
Delbanco told host Don Marsh on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, “It was clear that there was going to be an issue when an enslaved person tried to flee from a slave state to a free state.”
The book details the attempts made by the government to control the issue of fugitive migration, sparked purportedly by government actors’ desires – regardless of their personal opinions on slavery – to maintain the unity of the nation.
In response to complaints from slaveholders over their enslaved laborers’ escapes to northern freedom, in 1850 Congress passed what Delbanco described as a “merciless law trying to make it hard, if not impossible, for a fugitive slave to find sanctuary in the North.”
The law stripped accused fugitives of their right to habeas corpus, “the basic right in the Anglo-American legal tradition that you can test the legality of your own detention in open court.”
This law not only denied alleged fugitives their rights to testify on their own behalves and to a trial by jury, but also made it a criminal offense for a northerner to provide aid to a slave escaping captivity.
“It would be impossible to defend such a law on moral grounds,” Delbanco said. “How could you make a case that this was justice? This was not justice. But it was consistent with the Constitution of the United States.”
He added that many white northerners who expressed opposition to slavery – and were credited as “abolitionists” – did not necessary oppose the Fugitive Slave Law. This seeming contradiction stemmed from the desire of many anti-slavery politicians to keep the country intact.
“Without [the law], it looked like the nation would come to pieces,” Delbanco explained. “On the other hand, it was a patently unjust law.”
One noted public figure credited as an abolitionist but supportive of the unjust provision in the interest of maintaining the union was Missouri’s own William Greenleaf Eliot – founder of Washington University in St. Louis and a noted anti-slavery public figure.
Delbanco added that Missouri was a microcosm of the broader pre-war United States, saying that there was often “armed conflict between pro-secessionists and pro-Union forces in Missouri.”
Delbanco drew parallels between the experiences of runaway enslaved people and contemporary conversations about citizenship and belonging, such as the current debate over immigration.
“Fugitive slaves were, after all, undocumented migrants,” he said. “They had no legal papers entitling them to cross the border between a slave state and a free state.”
He also noted that the fear of detection many fugitives faced when they migrated north still exists for many black Americans today.
“It took a very long time – and indeed, I’m not sure we’ve yet arrived at that time – when black Americans could feel that they could walk down the street in safety and dignity and not fearful of the local law enforcement forces or vigilantes,” Delbanco explained.
The ongoing legacy of the Fugitive Slave Law makes it a story Delbanco believes should continue to be recounted.
“This was a struggle,” he said, “that was fought out in Congress, in the courts, in the newspapers – and most of all perhaps in the hearts and minds of Americans.”
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5
Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters (1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., Ladue)
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan, and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.