The first comprehensive history of the Mason-Dixon Line—a dramatic story of imperial rivalry and settler-colonial violence, the bonds of slavery and the fight for freedom.
The United States is the product of border dynamics—not just at international frontiers but at the boundary that runs through its first heartland. The story of the Mason-Dixon Line is the story of America’s colonial beginnings, nation building, and conflict over slavery.
Acclaimed historian Edward Gray offers the first comprehensive narrative of the America’s defining border. Formalized in 1767, the Mason-Dixon Line resolved a generations-old dispute that began with the establishment of Pennsylvania in 1681. Rivalry with the Calverts of Maryland—complicated by struggles with Dutch settlers in Delaware, breakneck agricultural development, and the resistance of Lenape and Susquehannock natives—had led to contentious jurisdictional ambiguity, full-scale battles among the colonists, and ethnic slaughter. In 1780, Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery inaugurated the next phase in the Line’s history. Proslavery and antislavery sentiments had long coexisted in the Maryland–Pennsylvania borderlands, but now African Americans—enslaved and free—faced a boundary between distinct legal regimes. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, the Mason-Dixon Line became a federal instrument to arrest the northward flow of freedom-seeking Blacks. Only with the end of the Civil War did the Line’s significance fade, though it continued to haunt African Americans as Jim Crow took hold.
Mason-Dixon tells the gripping story of colonial grandees, Native American diplomats, Quaker abolitionists, fugitives from slavery, capitalist railroad and canal builders, US presidents, Supreme Court justices, and Underground Railroad conductors—all contending with the relentless violence and political discord of a borderland that was a transformative force in American history.