Five Best: Andrew Delbanco on Books on Slavery and the Coming of the Civil War
From the author, most recently, of ‘The War Before the War.’

Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave
By William Grimes (1825)

Before the Civil War, memoirs by escaped slaves poured from the abolitionist presses. Most were heavily edited, and almost all professed pious gratitude for the gift of deliverance. But William Grimes wrote his own story in raw language (“I have been so hungry for meat that I could have eat my mother”) that spared no one from his rage—not slave masters, not Northern whites, not other slaves. After his escape from Savannah, Yale students plied him with drink in order to amuse themselves with his slurring and stumbling until, his dignity destroyed, he “took the floor and lay there speechless.” Grimes concludes his book with this ferocious sentence: “If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will leave my skin as a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious, happy, and free America.”

Benito Cereno
By Herman Melville (1855)

In a haunting novella based on a memoir by Amasa Delano, a Massachusetts ship captain who had encountered a Spanish slave ship, Herman Melville—almost alone among classic white writers before the Civil War—confronted the horror of slavery. Melville’s fictional Delano climbs aboard the ship into a world of “shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.” Cereno, the captain, is attended by a black valet, Babo, who sticks to him with the apparent fidelity of a “shepherd’s dog.” Touched by “the docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind,” the clueless Yankee ignores the sound of hatchet blades being sharpened by unsupervised slaves. He cannot grasp that Babo, mastermind of a bloody mutiny in progress, is putting on a show of feigned sycophancy. After Delano finally sees the truth his men overwhelm the mutinous slaves. Babo, recaptured, “uttered no sound and could not be forced to.” “Benito Cereno” is both a shattering account of a futile attempt by slaves to emancipate themselves and a commentary on the insouciance of their masters confronting the rage that slavery bred in the enslaved.

The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861
By David M. Potter (1976)

With a rare combination of nuance and narrative drive, David Potter draws us into the vortex that was “whirling the country in ever narrower circles and more rapid revolutions into the pit of war.” Without condemning either side, he vividly portrays a nation coming apart under assault from both. Congress becomes “a cockpit in which rival groups could match their best fighters against one another.” Among them are the thundering Daniel Webster, “the kind of senator that Richard Wagner might have created at the height of his powers,” and the perversely brilliant John C. Calhoun, “the most majestic champion of error since Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.” Potter writes with such immediacy that events long past feel like the present unfolding before our eyes.

Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words
By Douglas L. Wilson (2006)

Edward R. Murrow said that Winston Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” The same was true of Abraham Lincoln. Douglas Wilson shows in fine-grain detail how Lincoln composed his speeches, sometimes taking suggestions from advisers and reworking them, as when Secretary of State William Seward proposed this ponderous conclusion for the president’s first inaugural address:

The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Lincoln inserted commas in Seward’s draft to signify pauses so that listeners could absorb each phrase as if it were a line in a stanza, heard rather than read. And in the choice of words he made small changes with large consequences:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

By replacing “guardian angel” with “better angels of our nature,” Lincoln transformed a platitude into a truth—that the nation’s public struggle between freedom and slavery mirrored the private war between decency and self-interest within every human heart.

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
By Eric Foner (2010)

Eric Foner gives us a man who grows through “a process of moral and political education and deepening antislavery conviction.” Before the outbreak of the war, Lincoln had yielded his personal hatred of slavery to his duty to defend the Constitution, which protected slavery where permitted by state law. But gradually the war itself dissolved that contradiction in his conscience. He granted refuge to fugitive slaves behind Union lines, then proclaimed emancipation in the Confederate states, then supported enlistment of black soldiers. And, just before his death, he endorsed partial extension of the franchise to black voters, thus keeping faith with his own dictum that “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” Mr. Foner draws the key term of his subtitle, “American Slavery,” from Lincoln’s sublime Second Inaugural Address, in which, instead of demonizing the South, he held the whole nation to account for the sin of human bondage and saw the “mighty scourge of war” as the providential means for extirpating it at last.