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DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The harsh debate over the impeachment inquiry into President Trump is just one reminder of the sharp polarization in American politics. Today, we'll be talking about another time of deep division - when the nation's founders had to confront the issue of slavery. Slavery was the bedrock of the economy in the South and was headed toward extinction in the North. When delegates met in Philadelphia to craft the Constitution, they included a requirement to return fugitive slaves to their owners. How to deal with runaway slaves remained a contentious issue for decades and was one of the disputes that led to the Civil War. We're going to listen to Terry's interview with Andrew Delbanco about his book "The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves And The Struggle For America's Soul From The Revolution To The Civil War." It's now out in paperback. Delbanco is the Alexander Hamilton professor of American studies at Columbia University. He spoke to Terry last November, when the book was published in hardback.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Andrew Delbanco, welcome to FRESH AIR. So slavery is not mentioned in the Constitution by name, but it's referred to twice, first in Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3. Tell us what that clause is about.
ANDREW DELBANCO: So it's a clause in the Constitution that makes it clear that if a slave or, indeed, an indentured servant flees from the service or labor that person owes to his, quote, unquote, "owner" - flees to a state - to another state, the law requires that he be returned to that owner. It was an element of the Constitution without which, I think, it's really hard to imagine that the Constitution could have been formulated, that the country could have been formed because in a sense, this was really - these were really two countries that were putting themselves together into one, and they had to decide what to do about this border problem.
So I think of the fugitive slave clause as a kind of extradition treaty, that people in those states where slavery was clearly a fundamental part of the economy and culture could be secure in the knowledge that their - they wouldn't lose their property by that property taking up and moving to another state. It sounds all very abstract and impersonal and legalistic. But I think we have to face the fact that without that clause, it's very unlikely that the country would have been formed in the first place.
GROSS: It's really interesting, though, that the word slave is not mentioned. It's like, no person held to service or labor in one state. Well, it's referring to indentured servants and to slaves. And it sounds like a contractual agreement - no person held to service or labor. They're talking about slavery in this. Why don't they come out and say slavery?
DELBANCO: Right. Well, that's a question that has engaged Americans for centuries, in fact. Abraham Lincoln believed that it was because - he described slavery as a cancer that would eventually be cut out and that the authors of the Constitution didn't want to acknowledge its presence as a formative element in the nation. And many of his fellow Republicans looked at it the same way. James Madison, one of the authors of the Constitution, asserted that it would have been - it would be wrong to place the concept of property in men in the Constitution.
And yet they had to acknowledge the reality that slavery not only existed but was fundamental to the culture and economy of several of the colonies that were signing onto this deal to make a new nation. So they had to find a way to finesse the matter, as it were. And they didn't use the word. The word is used sometimes in the debates. It's not that they pretended that slavery didn't exist, but they didn't want that conception in the Constitution itself.
GROSS: And the word enters into the language just a few years later in 1793 in a new law signed by President George Washington. What was that law?
DELBANCO: Right. Well, it became very clear very quickly that this so-called fugitive slave clause was unenforceable. For one thing, it never said who was in charge of enforcement. Was it a local matter? If a slave owner in Georgia made a claim against someone in Massachusetts that he or she was employing someone who owed labor to him, who was in charge of adjudicating that dispute? Was it local law enforcement? Maybe the federal government, but the federal government at the - in the early years of our country was extremely weak.
It may be hard for Americans to wrap their minds around that today since we think of the federal government as this leviathan. But the federal government really had no means to enforce such a clause. So there's a sense in which it's in there in the Constitution as a kind of aspiration that is on the part of slave owners and an embarrassment, something that Northerners were willing to put up with. But the real issue of whether it could - whether you could put teeth into that clause and make it real was postponed as so much else about the fate of slavery was postponed.
GROSS: So again, getting back to the Constitution, the word slave was not mentioned in the clause that basically said that runaway slaves had to be returned. But there's another clause, the three-fifths clause as it's known, that's also in the Constitution. And that also applies to slavery.
GROSS: And for people not familiar with that clause, please describe it.
DELBANCO: Well, it states that for purposes of representation - that is, apportionment of representatives in Congress - and that is in the lower house of Congress, the House of Representatives - three-fifths of all other persons - that is, three-fifths of all nonwhite males, although it doesn't use that language - would be counted in order to calculate how many representatives a given slave state would be able to send to Washington. It's often thought that - I mean, it's an offensive concept that you count three-fifths of a person in any context.
It's often thought that this somehow meant that enslaved black people were regarded as only worth three-fifths of a white person, and that's not exactly true. In fact, the reality is that the slave states would have preferred to count all their slaves as whole persons for the purpose of apportionment because that would have given them more representatives and more political power in Washington. So the three-fifths clause was one of those compromises in the Constitution that slavery made necessary.
They made another compromise. It was actually a third place in the Constitution. And that is, they stipulated that Congress could make no law to terminate or regulate the importation of such persons as a given state might wish to import for 20 years after the signing. That is, they postponed the possibility of terminating the international slave trade for 20 years, which was, again, a compromise. The Deep South states thought the government had no business interfering with their right to import as many slaves as they wanted, whenever they wanted. The Northern states thought it should be terminated right away.
GROSS: So you quote Lincoln, of course, in the Gettysburg Address, 1863, referring to a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. You say that even Lincoln realized that that was not strictly true. And five years earlier, he was more candid. What did he say in 1858?
DELBANCO: Well, Lincoln was a great man and, I think, a man with a very strong moral center. But he was also a politician. And when he was speaking at Gettysburg, he wanted to articulate what he thought was the core commitment of the American nation, and that was to liberty and equality, so that's what he stressed. But five years earlier in a political context in which he was operating in which the debate was raging over what the fate of slavery would be, specifically in the western territories, he was, as I say in the book, more candid and said, look. We - I'm paraphrasing now. And it's always kind of a sin to paraphrase Lincoln. He said, we got the most we could get at the time of the founding of the nation. We compromised on the issue of slavery. We had to. If we hadn't done that, there would have been no nation.
And one has to try to remember that the very idea that these 13 former British colonies could come to an agreement to form themselves into a single, sovereign nation was sort of improbable and, to many people, preposterous. That's why we have books called things like "Miracle At Philadelphia." The idea of putting this nation together was miraculous. So Lincoln was saying, look. They postponed this question of whether this would be a nation that tolerated human bondage. And it was always his view that they had, to use his words, put slavery in the path of ultimate extinction, that history, that time itself, the progressive movement of history would eventually make slavery dissolve and go away.
And that was actually not a crazy idea at the time of the founding of the nation. As great an historian as the great African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois said that in his view, virtually all the delegates at the Constitutional Convention believed that by scheduling an end to the slave trade, they were scheduling an end to slavery. We now know in retrospect they couldn't see the future any more than we can. They could not the Industrial Revolution, the arrival of better agricultural techniques and the increasing centrality of crops like cotton and tobacco to the economy not only of the South but of the whole nation. They couldn't imagine the growth in the population of slaves that would take place over the first half of the 19th century.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about your book, which is called "The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves And The Struggle For America's Soul From The Revolution To The Civil War." My guest is Andrew Delbanco, the author of that book. He's also a professor of American studies at Columbia University. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And on this day when this country seems so divided, we're looking at one of the great historical divisions in our country, the division over slavery. My guest, Andrew Delbanco, is the author of the new book "The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves And The Struggle For America's Soul From The Revolution To The Civil War." He's also a professor of American studies at Columbia University.
How many of the Founding Fathers - which Founding Fathers actually owned slaves themselves?
DELBANCO: You know, there were 55 signers to the Constitution. And right now I can't give you the number, but something like a half or two-thirds were slave owners at one time or another in their lives. We want to remember that at the time of the signing of the Constitution, slavery was not an exclusively Southern phenomenon. It existed in the Northern states. New York did not abolish slavery until the 1820s in a final, complete way. So there was a sense in which it was a national phenomenon, though anybody with their eyes open and with some sense of anticipating how things would go could see that - for reasons of climate and temperament and other factors, too - slavery was a much larger factor in the life of the South than it was in the North.
GROSS: Thomas Jefferson himself had owned slaves. And you reprint an ad that he'd put in a newspaper offering a reward for one of his slaves, one of his runaway slaves. So if he had this ideal, how did he justify having slaves?
DELBANCO: Well, this is a very deep and difficult question. And it's not as if the scholars will ever agree about it. I mean, you can find in Jefferson the most soaring, beautiful language about the dignity of human life and especially the quality of liberty. You find him saying at one point, God's justice does not sleep forever. You find him predicting the spirit of the master is abating. The spirit of the slave is rising from the dust. And yet you can quote from the same man the most unbearable language about the inferiority of black people, preposterous assertions that black people prefer sexual relations with animals than with human beings and vice versa, things that I find very painful to read to my students.
And at the end of the day, we just have to acknowledge that Jefferson was a divided and contradictory and inconsistent man, as I suspect we all are on a number of fundamental issues. Part of him wanted slavery to go away. He pushed hard for gradual abolition in Virginia and failed. And at the same time, you know, a man like Jefferson, his livelihood, his social status, everything about him was tied up in his identity as a slave owner.
GROSS: And, of course, then there's his relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, who he apparently had a relationship with and children with, as well.
DELBANCO: That seems to be the case. The DNA evidence suggests that. Did he think of her as a piece of property to be exploited for pleasure, or did he love her and think of her as a human being to whom he owed protection? Who can say? I mean, there are hints in his writings of how he thought about black people, but no one will ever be in the room with Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings to make a considered judgment about that. So it's an open question to which I think we'll never have a final answer.
GROSS: Before we really leave the subject of the Constitution, I'm just wondering how you deal with the fact that our liberty is based on the Constitution. It's considered one of the greatest documents in human history. At the same time, it's clearly a flawed document because it allows for slavery in three separate clauses. And in that sense, it's a very compromised document. It insists on the equality of men. It leaves out women. It allows slavery. It certainly, you know, eliminates the recognition of slaves as actual people. How do you deal with the imperfections and contradictions of the Constitution while still believing in its beauty and its importance and its insistence on equality?
DELBANCO: Well, one way to answer that question is to give you Lincoln's answer, which was that the fountainhead of everything about America was not, in his mind, in the Constitution, though he had great reverence for it, and he certainly felt constrained by it when he became president. It was in the Declaration of Independence, which is where we find the statement about human equality and the universal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
GROSS: So I just misquoted the Constitution, I guess, as many of us do (laughter).
DELBANCO: Yeah. You sort - I mean...
GROSS: That's the Declaration of Independence.
DELBANCO: I mean, you could make the case that those principles are in the Constitution, too, but they're suppressed and implicit, whereas in the Declaration they're right out there. And so, you know, I think the way Lincoln thought about our history - and it's a pretty good way of thinking about it, from my point of view - is that America has to be about moving toward a more complete harmony with the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution is an instrument that describes how the government will work and how power will be distributed in the different branches of the government. And, of course, the Bill of Rights that were attached to the Constitution stipulates certain protections that individuals must enjoy against the government. You got to remember that this is a document written shortly after a revolution against a power that most Americans regarded as tyrannical. People were very nervous about centralized government power. But the Declaration for Lincoln - and I guess I would say for me - is really the statement of what America aspires to be. And the conflict or tension between those two documents explains a lot about what happens over the ensuing 75 years or a century.
GROSS: So we were talking about the clause in the Constitution that says that - you know, without using the word slave, it says that any person, basically, who's a runaway slave or an indentured servant needs to be returned. That law didn't have enough teeth. So a federal law was passed giving that some more teeth. And then in reaction to that, a series of personal liberty laws were passed in the North. What were those laws? What were the goals of those laws?
DELBANCO: Well, the Northern states recognized that giving sort of free reign to slave catchers who came up from the South and simply seized a person off the street was a problematic situation - not only for people who may once have been enslaved but also for free black people, of whom there was a growing population in the North, who could be kidnapped on the pretext that they had once belonged to someone in the South. So laws were passed to build in protections for such people - the opportunity for trial by jury, various cumbersome legal requirements requiring signed affidavits presented to a judge and adjudicated in a hearing - in order to try to slow down that process.
The whole question of how much antipathy there was to slavery in the North itself is a complicated one. Some Northerners were in no doubt - and we know - opposed to slavery on moral grounds because it shocked their sensibility that one human being could own another. But some Northerners didn't like slavery because they didn't like black people. And they didn't like the idea that Southern slave owners could bring black people into the North - and more, bring them into the territories that would eventually become states - and thereby, from their point of view, pollute the neighborhood with people who were unwelcome in their mind. So even the antislavery impulse was a complicated one. And that's one of the stories I try to tell in this book.
DAVIES: Columbia University American studies professor Andrew Delbanco speaking with Terry Gross. After a break, he'll talk about why the Supreme Court overturned state laws designed to protect fugitive slaves and how the capture of fugitive slaves on the Northern cities hardened opposition to slavery in the North. Also, Justin Chang reviews Noah Baumbach's new film, "Marriage Story," starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's music from "Blood On The Fields," an extended composition written by Wynton Marsalis.
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WYNTON MARSALIS: (Singing) I got to get out, got to be way far away - free. (Playing trumpet).
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to the interview Terry recorded with Andrew Delbanco, author of the book "The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves And The Struggle For America's Soul From The Revolution To The Civil War." It's about how fugitive slave laws which enabled slave owners and their proxies to capture slaves who'd escaped to the North helped lead to the Civil War. The book is now out in paperback.
When we left off, they were talking about the personal liberty laws passed by several Northern states in the 1830s and '40s to protect slaves who'd escaped the South. Pennsylvania's law, the nation's strictest, was overturned in the Supreme Court. Terry asked Delbanco to describe the basis of the court's decision.
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GROSS: Pennsylvania had the strictest personal liberty law. And that was challenged in the Supreme Court in a decision called Prigg v. Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania's law was overturned. On what grounds?
DELBANCO: Well, Justice Story said that...
GROSS: He was the chief justice, right?
DELBANCO: He was - yes, of the Supreme Court in 1842. His ruling essentially said that any state law that interferes with the principle of the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution was unconstitutional - that the Constitution took precedence, like it or not. And Story said many times privately that he didn't like it. He hated slavery personally. But there it was in the Constitution guaranteeing the right of slave owners to recover their slaves. So state laws that tried to undermine that were, to his mind, unconstitutional. And yet he also said in that decision that state authorities could not be compelled to participate in the rendition of slaves. That would - that was a call that the states could make for themselves.
So it was a kind of double-edged decision. On the one hand, it struck down all these personal liberty laws that had grown up over the first 40 years of the 19th century. On the other hand, it seemed to say, well, you know, if the slave owner wants to recover his slave from Pennsylvania or New Jersey or Massachusetts, good luck to him, you know? We're not under obligation to help him. At least, that's the way the decision was interpreted in some Northern states. So as was the case with many other elements in this story, an effort to solve the problem actually caused a greater problem and caused more animosity between the sections.
GROSS: So it divided the country even more.
DELBANCO: That's my impression - that, you know, the authors of the Constitution were right to realize that stitching together these two countries, as it were - one based on slavery and one increasingly based on free labor - that that stitching was going to have a lot of stress on it and that one of the big stresses was this traffic of enslaved human beings from one to the other - wasn't the only stress, by any means. I mean, in some ways, the question of whether slavery would be permitted in the territories was a more fundamental question for a longer time.
But the fugitive slave problem continually pushed against the proposition that this was one country. So by midcentury, for various reasons, the Congress faced a critical moment when it had to decide whether it could compromise on the major issues. And at the center of that compromise, which has come down to us as the Compromise of 1850, it placed a new, really severe law that was intended to regulate the fugitive slave traffic once and for all. It didn't work.
GROSS: And that's the Fugitive Slave Act.
DELBANCO: That's the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
GROSS: So what did that act say?
DELBANCO: Well, it said a lot of things. It said anyone who interfered with the capture of a slave was guilty of a federal crime. It said that citizens in the North were obliged to assist in the capture of fugitive slaves. It, for the first time ever, put the federal government behind that fugitive slave clause in a new and aggressive way. It denied the right to a trial by jury to any accused fugitive. It denied the right to the accused to testify, which is not all that unusual in the context of American legal practice at the time. But in this particular context, the spectacle of a person in chains in the courtroom not allowed to say anything for him or herself and just being argued over as if this were another kind of animate property, like a horse or a cow, was pretty offensive to a lot of people in the North.
But the main impact of that law - again, it's not so much something, I think, we can measure by numbers because, in fact, the numbers of slaves who were sent back under the fugitive slave law was not extraordinarily high - indeed, tiny compared to the millions who remained enslaved in the South. But what it did do is it brought with sudden clarity to people in the North that slavery was not a Southern problem. Slavery was an American problem.
And in cities like Boston and Syracuse and others, you literally had citizens watching a black person seized on the street, dragged into jail in chains and, once the hearing ran its course, taken off to the pier, put on a boat and sent back to undoubtedly worse conditions than those from which he or she had fled in the first place because they were going back to a very angry master. Having that happen in your own neighborhood in front of your eyes and being told that if you try to do anything about it, you're committing a federal crime was a whole new experience.
So that's why in this book, I try to show how the fugitive slave law of 1850 turned slavery from an abstraction into an actuality in the minds of many people who had preferred not to think about it before. And I think that connects to some of our own experience in our own time.
GROSS: How so?
DELBANCO: Well, where to begin? I mean, you know, we don't think very hard about where the products come from that we consume every day. New Englanders didn't think about where the sugar came from that they put into their tea or pastry...
GROSS: Sugar that was harvested by slaves.
DELBANCO: Right. Ralph Waldo Emerson said at one point, no one tastes blood in the treats - blood in the treats. New Englanders didn't think about the fact that they might have had personal investments in the State Street Bank or some other bank that was making indispensable loans to plantation owners. They didn't think very hard about the fact that the Industrial Revolution that started to pick up steam in Massachusetts in the 1820s and 1830s where textile mills were at the center of that activity - that those textile mills were weaving slave-grown cotton into cloth. They didn't think about the clothes they were wearing on their own backs.
People, I think - you know, how many of us are really willing to think hard about where the comforts and pleasures and the conveniences of life that we take for granted - where they actually come from? What kind of laborers are producing these things for us, under what conditions? So again, I think it's easy to sit in judgment on people in the past and say, well, they should have thought about it. They should have realized that slavery was as much their problem as it was that of the slave owners. But I'm not sure we're in a position to make that moral judgment.
In any case, what the fugitive slave law did - Emerson said it again. He said it was like a sheet of lightning at midnight. Another phrase of his that I like very much - it was a university to the people. It taught the fact that there was an intricate web of connection between the slave owners of the South and the industrialists and, indeed, the citizens of the North.
GROSS: You know, so we're talking about the Fugitive Slave Act in terms of how it further divided the country and helped lead to the Civil War. But let's talk about what it meant, what the Fugitive Slave Act meant, for slaves and for people living in the North who were either emancipated slaves or who never were slaves - were born in freedom and expected and wanted to stay living a life of a free person. How were their lives affected by the Fugitive Slave Act, those people in the North?
DELBANCO: Well, again, I am wary of facile analogies, but, you know, we think of the Jews of Europe from one minute to the next. One minute they were assimilated citizens in Germany or France, and then virtually the next minute, they were terrified for their lives and frightened by every knock on the door and every sound of footsteps on the stairs. And they had good reason to be terrified. I think...
GROSS: Unless they showed papers saying that they were emancipated, they could be taken to the South and given to anyone who claimed that they had previously owned this person.
DELBANCO: Right. I mean, the Southerners would have said, no, no, there were constraints around that, and we're only coming after the people that we have legitimate property rights toward. But that's not how it felt to black people in the North and many - there were many black people in the North who had been living in the North for 10, 15, 20 years who might indeed have fled from slavery when they were teenagers or young adults. And the fugitive slave law didn't give them a pass, didn't give them a break.
So the anxiety in the black community was extremely high. And, you know, it altered the whole tone of life in a city like Boston, which prided itself on being the city of liberty and the city that had risen up against the tyranny of the British and now was being told by its own central government that it had to participate in the process of sending people back into a life of servitude.
GROSS: My guest is Andrew Delbanco, author of "The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves And The Struggle For America's Soul From The Revolution To The Civil War." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with historian Andrew Delbanco, author of "The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves And The Struggle For America's Soul From The Revolution To The Civil War." When we left off, we were talking about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slave catchers to abduct freed or escaped slaves and return them to the South.
So Congress repealed the fugitive slave law in June of 1864. Congress, by that time, was the North. There wasn't a Southern vote to object to the repeal.
GROSS: And then the war ended about a year later. So let's jump ahead. I mean, you're a professor of American studies, so you don't just study the Civil War or the history of slavery. You're looking at the history of our country.
GROSS: And a lot of people have written about this and spoken about this. But for you, how do you see the long-standing consequences of slavery for African-Americans in the United States?
DELBANCO: Well, let me try it this way. We often speak these days about people of color or minorities. And there are good reasons to group people into those categories under certain circumstances. But I don't think we want to obscure the fact that there's one group of Americans who immigrated here involuntarily and who were treated for almost 250 years as a species of animate property no different from a horse or a cow.
Now, yeah, it's been a long time since the Civil War. It's been a long time since the amendments following the Civil War guaranteed citizenship to former slaves, attempted to guarantee the right to vote to former slaves. But in the long arc of history, 150 years, give or take a few, is not a very long time for people who have been subjected to that kind of not just physical but psychological and moral brutality to just sort of shake it off and say, well, you know, here I am, and no problem.
That's not the way history works. We could cite many other milestones in our history in the 150 years since to suggest that black people haven't exactly been invited to participate in American society with full equality any time that I can remember. We've made - I mean, I do believe it's wrong to tell the American story without acknowledging the progress that has been made in this country. And I have a certain faith in younger people that old, deep-seated racial attitudes are - don't make much sense to a lot of the young people I know. And I'm not just talking about New York City, but I get around the country a certain amount. And yet to pretend that black people are not still dealing with the legacy of slavery is preposterous.
GROSS: This is a question I know you can't answer, but I'm going to ask you about it anyways.
GROSS: The divisions in our country seem so strong right now that some people are actually worried that there is going to be an actual fight - you know, expressed through just, like, fighting in the streets between people from different political sides or something more extreme than even that. How serious a worry do you think that is?
DELBANCO: Well, you know, I can't answer the question. But I can say...
GROSS: I knew that.
DELBANCO: Right. But I can say that writing this book was sort of a double-edged experience for me. On the one hand, you look at what happened in the 1850s - at the complete breakdown of the federal government, the secession of almost half the country from the other half and the war that ensued that took almost a million lives. And you say, geez, you know, that makes what's happening today look like peanuts. And that's one approach which I'm trying to cling to - you know, that something like this couldn't happen again.
But the other way to think about the story of this book is that institutions that seemed durable and seemed unlikely to fail turned out to be extremely fragile and that public language on both sides - I mean, radical abolitionists were extremely belligerent and extremely insulting and offensive to the ears of many slave owners. And we have to remember that there were undoubtedly many decent slave owners who felt that, you know, they were living a moral life, and they had inherited their slaves and didn't deserve the kind of vitriol and acrimony that was coming at them.
And then on the other side, the language of the slave owners toward the aggressive anti-slavery forces in the North - the anger just started to feed on itself. And the viciousness of the politics sort of becomes an engine of its own perpetuation. And some of that feels like what's going on right now - that we have - at our peril, have forgotten that, you know, civility and a modicum of respect for the other side - even if we think that the issues that divide us are so fundamental that we could never come to an agreement about them - that some measure of respect for the other side is critically important for a society that wants to sustain itself and not become an authoritarian society.
So it's a worrisome time. And, you know, historians don't have any better insight into what's going to happen tomorrow than anybody else does. I think it's a fallacy to believe that. But by looking at the past, one is reminded that things that we take for granted as stable can suddenly go up in smoke. And we want to be really careful about that, I think.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for joining us.
DELBANCO: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Andrew Delbanco is the Alexander Hamilton professor of American Studies at Columbia University. He spoke to Terry Gross last year about his book "The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves And The Struggle For America's Soul From The Revolution To The Civil War." It's now out in paperback. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews Noah Baumbach's new film, "Marriage Story," starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's been 14 years since the release of "The Squid And The Whale," Noah Baumbach's drama about two brothers dealing with their parents' divorce. His new movie, "Marriage Story," is also about a couple who decide to call it quits, played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. The cast also includes Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta. The film opens this week with a limited theatrical run before it begins streaming December 6 on Netflix. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In Noah Baumbach's devastating new movie "Marriage Story," Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole Barber, an artist couple who live in Brooklyn with their 8-year-old son, Henry. Nicole is an actress who works with Charlie, a director, at his avant-garde theater company.
The opening sequence, which Charlie and Nicole narrate in voiceover, is a series of flashbacks to some of their happiest moments as a family. There are Monopoly games and home-cooked meals, afternoon outings and bedtime rituals. But no one knows the whole truth of a marriage except the two people who are in it. And in the next scene, Charlie and Nicole are sitting down with a mediator who's guiding them through the early steps of their separation.
Baumbach has always delighted in skewering the lives of artists and intellectuals whose ambitions are often at odds with their pursuit of happiness, and his pictures have always walked a thin line between scalding humor and piercing emotion. But he has never reconciled those impulses as powerfully as he does in "Marriage Story," which is fully alive to the messiness of an impossible, yet all too recognizable situation. The movie also offers a blistering look inside the American divorce industry, a system that proceeds to bleed Charlie and Nicole dry emotionally and financially.
Nicole has landed the lead in a TV pilot in Los Angeles and heads out there with Henry for a spell that Charlie assumes will be temporary. Although, as we'll soon see, he has a habit of assuming too much. Unlike her diehard New Yorker husband, Nicole grew up in LA. And now that she's back, she wants to stay. She realizes this in a conversation with her divorce attorney, Nora, played by a brilliantly ascerbic Laura Dern.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARRIAGE STORY")
LAURA DERN: (As Nora Fanshaw) Where do you want to live now, doll?
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Nicole Barber) Well, I'm here now, obviously. I don't know if the show will get picked up. It feels like home. It is home. It's the only home I've ever known without Charlie.
DERN: (As Nora Fanshaw) You want to stay here?
JOHANSSON: (As Nicole Barber) Charlie's not going to want that. He hates LA.
DERN: (As Nora Fanshaw) We're interested in what you want to do. What you're doing is an act of hope. You understand that?
JOHANSSON: (As Nicole Barber) Yeah.
CHANG: When Charlie flies out to meet Nicole, she serves him with divorce papers. This throws him off guard and forces him to find an LA-based attorney even as he tries to keep up with work on his latest play in New York. What he thought would be a smooth, amicable parting soon erupts into a bitter bi-coastal custody battle. The most affordable lawyer Charlie can find is a guy named Bert, wonderfully played by Alan Alda, who sympathetically lays out all the difficulties that lie ahead.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARRIAGE STORY")
ADAM DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) Will we go to court?
ALAN ALDA: (As Bert Spitz) No. No, we don't want to go to court. Courts in California are a disaster, and that's just how we have to think about it. I'm not sure these are my glasses. Where are you living while you're out here?
DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) In a hotel right now.
ALDA: (As Bert Spitz) A hotel doesn't look good.
DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) To who?
ALDA: (As Bert Spitz) The court.
DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) You just said we weren't going to go to court.
ALDA: (As Bert Spitz) No, of course. Of course. We have to prepare to go to court hoping we don't go to court.
DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) OK.
ALDA: (As Bert Spitz) You should get a place in LA.
CHANG: "Marriage Story" gets the performative nature of divorce, the way both parties wind up exaggerating their virtues and each other's faults. It gets how divorce can not only end a marriage but poison it, forcing Charlie and Nicole to scan their entire marital history looking for anything they can use as dirt against each other. Most of all, the movie understands the heartbreaking toll of all this on young Henry, who becomes both a prize and a bit of an abstraction. Their fight over him seems to be more for their benefit than for his.
Baumbach guided us through the emotional wreckage of a broken family 14 years ago in "The Squid And The Whale," which was inspired by his teenage memories of his parents' divorce. The director has noted that "Marriage Story" was informed by many people's experience of divorce, including his own. In the end, Charlie and Nicole are too distinctly drawn to be confused for anyone except themselves.
Driver and Johansson are superb, nailing the little everyday moments as well as the long, drawn-out conversations, including one ferocious no-holds-barred argument that's likely to end up in actors' audition handbooks. You believe in the relationship these two shared, and you can see their lingering love for each other even as their life together is ending.
The audience is likely to come out of "Marriage Story" arguing over where its sympathies lie, and it's a sign of the movie's integrity that the answer isn't clear. Some may take issue with Nicole's aggressive legal tactics, though others may see them as an act of defiance against a partner who rarely considered her needs or wishes. Charlie does get more screen time, and his character does ultimately leave the deeper impression. But that may be because he's the one who has more growing to do. Maybe no one outside a marriage can know the truth of it, but Baumbach brings the audience awfully close.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, our guest will be Judd Apatow, who's edited a new book about his friend and mentor, the late comedian Garry Shandling. After his death, Apatow helped go through Shandling's house. Part of what he found was 30 years' worth of journal entries revealing the insecurities and emotional suffering that Shandling turned into comedy. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.