The New York Review of Books is a treasure trove. In it you find reviews of books on many liberal arts and humanities topics as well as well-penned articles. The contributors are major figures in their fields. I learn a lot reading these items and I thank my bookstore employers, John Birchers both, for telling me I needed to read the book reviews they subscribed to like Saturday Review. That was almost 60 years ago and I’ve been reading reviews ever since, often on gift subscriptions from friends.
Since this blog is personal, I will signal my sense of the vitality of these reviews by reviewing a review I just finished. It did not contain information unknown to me but repackaged it in a way that allowed me to reframe my approach to a vital topic: the role of a divided country.
The author of the book, The War Before the War by Andrew Delbanco, asserts that the country was divided from the beginning by the issue not so much of slavery itself but by the issue of fugitive slaves. I did frame that as a slave society (the South) vs a society with slaves (the North). I had just read yesterday in Ira Berlin’s Generations of Captivity that the Upper South was turning into a society with slaves by the 1840s as the cotton empire to the south devoured any available slave and many kidnapped free Blacks.
However, Delbanco’s outlay of the threads of this issue of fugitive slaves, heavily informed by his academic standing as a literary critic, delves much deeper, showing how Madison and other slaveholding authors of the Constitution fudged a good deal. A huge debate had occurred a few months ago in the pages of the NYRB between Sean Wilentz and Nicholas Guyatt, the former arguing that slavery was built into the Constitution and Guyatt arguing that freedom for all was built into it.
As an aside, I am also reading about the Goldwater campaign of the early 1950s and just how horribly people acted, worse than now, and the 1850s saw even worse behavior.
Here is the kicker: Delbanco argues that the whole point of states’ rights is to defend slavery. This is stated by the reviewer himself, David W. Blight, apparently as a reflection of his own views, And it throws into relief the underlying suspected motivation for claims of states’ rights in the 20th century as racial segregation. That begs the question [that expression used in its original sense] of the correctness of Delgado’s formulation.
When I was teaching I discovered that The Northwest Ordinance was of great importance to the right-wing Social Studies Department. I’ve been curious about that ever since, especially knowing the Newt Gingrich was all about The Northwest Ordinance. So I googled it and Newt and all I found was his plan for applying the ordinance to lunar settlement! But the chief item in it that relates to Delbanco’s book is that it contained provisions for returning fugitive slaves to the slaveholders. The latter was an element in the Fugitive Slave Law, which brought many Americans to abolitionist positions who had done their best to ignore slavery but could now no longer do so since their states were required to send escaped slaves back.
This backlash in the North alarmed the South greatly. Blight quotes Delbanco: “Because slave owners thought of themselves as a besieged ‘minority’ vulnerable to the expansion of federal power, there was risk in allowing the federal government ‘to assume control over the slave property.'” Thus the emphasis on states’ rights by the South. Blight writes that “extreme advocates of the Tenth Amendment who claimed to be defending merely the principle of states’ rights would have their deeper imperatives exposed as proslavery ideology and white supremacy once the question was tested in war.”
Just as now, moral issues confronted Americans. In 1855, Lincoln remarked, “The great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.” Blight goes on, “Self-tortured by the slavery question, a “nation” descended into disunion.”
He remarks that if we do not stop frequently on this road to disunion and dwell on the details, we will miss what Lincoln meant in the above quote. My question is, what is OUR issue now? Delbanco compares the fugitive in Philadelphia walking with head down, in the shadows, to the young African-American of today suppressing his rage as he is stopped and frisked. Wow! And does this extend to our undocumented residents? What about the millions with “ex-convict” pasted on them? Can even a woman feel safe stepping into certain environments or does she, too, have to keep her head and her dress down lest she attract intrusive attention? How far does this comparison go?
Is this a stretch? Yet what issues seem to divide our country today? Mexican, Blacks, women, gays….. Are they walking in some sense in the shadows? But what is our issue, and will getting rid of Trump resolve it?