Andrew Delbanco: The 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Nonfiction

A Ride for Liberty, Eastman Johnson

Andrew Delbanco: 2019 Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in the Category of Nonfiction

The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War (Penguin Press, 2018)


JMC faculty partner Andrew Delbanco’s latest book, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, has been honored with a 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in the Nonfiction Category. In concert with the Cleveland Foundation, the Anisfield-Wolf Awards recognize books that have made important contributions to the understanding of racism and human diversity. Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. praised Delbanco’s work as a “brilliant historical analysis.”

Karen R. Long, manager of the book awards at the Cleveland Foundation, commended the prescience of philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf in founding the prize in 1935. “She intuited that a commitment to civic justice through literature would be as important now as it was during the Great Depression,” Long said. “We are proud to add the 2019 winners to this important canon. These marvelous books scrutinize racism and explore human diversity from many perspectives even as reading them knits us closer together.”

Past winners include five writers who later won Nobel prizes – Gunnar Myrdal, Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. MartinLuther King Jr., Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka. They are among the 244 recipients of the prize.

Learn more about the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winners >>



The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War (Penguin Press, 2018)

By Andrew Delbanco


The War Before the WarFor decades after its founding, America was really two nations–one slave, one free. There were many reasons why this composite nation ultimately broke apart, but the fact that enslaved black people repeatedly risked their lives to flee their masters in the South in search of freedom in the North proved that the “united” states was actually a lie. Fugitive slaves exposed the contradiction between the myth that slavery was a benign institution and the reality that a nation based on the principle of human equality was in fact a prison-house in which millions of Americans had no rights at all. By awakening northerners to the true nature of slavery, and by enraging southerners who demanded the return of their human “property,” fugitive slaves forced the nation to confront the truth about itself.

By 1850, with America on the verge of collapse, Congress reached what it hoped was a solution– the notorious Compromise of 1850, which required that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters. Like so many political compromises before and since, it was a deal by which white Americans tried to advance their interests at the expense of black Americans. Yet the Fugitive Slave Act, intended to preserve the Union, in fact set the nation on the path to civil war. It divided not only the American nation, but also the hearts and minds of Americans who struggled with the timeless problem of when to submit to an unjust law and when to resist.

The fugitive slave story illuminates what brought us to war with ourselves and the terrible legacies of slavery that are with us still.

Purchase the book from Penguin Press or Amazon >>



Andrew DelbancoAndrew Delbanco is a the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University where he has been honored with the Great Teacher Award by the Society of Columbia Graduates. He is a respected scholar of American literature from the colonial period through the nineteenth century, religion, and the history of education. In addition to The War Before the War, Professor Delbanco has authored several other books, including College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (2012) and Melville: His World and Work (2005). His essays appear regularly in The New York Review of Books and other journals, on topics ranging from American literary and religious history to contemporary issues in higher education. In 2001, he was named by Time Magazine as “America’s Best Social Critic” and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Professor Delbanco also received the National Humanities Medal in 2012 for his writings on higher education and the place classic authors hold in history and contemporary life.

Professor Delbanco is a Jack Miller Center faculty partner.

Learn more about Andrew Delbanco >>



The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards recognize books that have made important contributions to the understanding of racism and the appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures. For over 80 years, the distinguished books earning Anisfield-Wolf prizes have opened and challenged minds.

Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf established the book prizes in 1935, in honor of her father, John Anisfield, and husband, Eugene Wolf, to reflect her family’s passion for issues of social justice. Today it remains the only American book prize focusing on works that address racism and diversity. Past winners have presented the extraordinary art and culture of peoples around the world, explored human-rights violations, exposed the effects of racism on children, reflected on growing up biracial, and illuminated the dignity of people as they search for justice.

Learn more about the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards >>



The Cleveland Foundation, the world’s first community foundation, has administered the Anisfield-Wolf prize since 1963. Its mission is to enhance the lives of all residents of Greater Cleveland, now and for generations to come, by working together with donors to build community endowment, address needs through grant-making, and provide leadership on key community issues.

Learn more about the Cleveland Foundation >>



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