The Town That Started the Civil War Summary

Nat Brandt

The Town That Started the Civil War

From the early years of the Colonial era to the beginning of the nineteenth century, many of those who opposed slavery in the United States believed that the institution would die a natural death inasmuch as it was uneconomical. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, however, as slavery continued to flourish, growing rapidly after the invention of the cotton gin, opposition to slavery grew more intense and more active. There were widespread public protests throughout the states where slavery was prohibited, and the so-called Underground Railroad was established to aid runaway slaves. Even so, by 1849, only .025% of those in slavery were successful in making their way to freedom.

The manifold defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 led to the passage, in 1850, of a more comprehensive and punitive piece of legislation. This new law provoked those who favored abolition to engage in still more acts of defiance. One of the most famous of these incidents was the “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue” of 1858. This snatching of a fugitive slave and his subsequent rescue by a “citizen’s army” of townspeople and college students resulted in a sensational trial in which the overt violation of federal statute took second place to the question of slavery as a constitutional right.

THE TOWN THAT STARTED THE CIVIL WAR is an attempt to fill an obvious gap in the historiography of the period. (The most recent monograph on the subject, William Cochran’s WESTERN RESERVE AND THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW, was originally published in 1920.) Nat Brandt writes with all the verve and enthusiasm one might expect of a former editor of AMERICAN HERITAGE MAGAZINE, without sacrificing historical accuracy. Of particular interest to many readers will be the sections relating the later history of those involved in the episode as well as an insightful epilogue regarding the town itself.