The New York Times

Taking Flight

A TINY FRACTION OF AMERICA’S SLAVES ESCAPED TO FREEDOM, BUT CONFLICT OVER THEIR FATE PLAYED AN OUTSIZE ROLE IN THE BUILDUP TO THE CIVIL WAR.

“The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War”

By Andrew Delbanco

453 pages. Penguin Press. $30.

The Civil War began over one basic issue: Was slavery, the ownership of human beings, a legitimate national institution, fixed in national law by the United States Constitution? One half of the country said it was, the other said it was not. The ensuing conflict was the chief instigator of Southern secession, as the secessionists themselves proclaimed. It was thus the chief source of the war that led to slavery’s abolition in

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