The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832

The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832

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by Alan Taylor
     
 

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National Book Award Finalist

This searing story of slavery and freedom in the Chesapeake by a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian reveals the pivot in the nation’s path between the founding and civil war.

Frederick Douglass recalled that slaves living along Chesapeake Bay longingly viewed sailing ships as "freedom’s swift-winged angels."

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Overview

National Book Award Finalist

This searing story of slavery and freedom in the Chesapeake by a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian reveals the pivot in the nation’s path between the founding and civil war.

Frederick Douglass recalled that slaves living along Chesapeake Bay longingly viewed sailing ships as "freedom’s swift-winged angels." In 1813 those angels appeared in the bay as British warships coming to punish the Americans for declaring war on the empire. Over many nights, hundreds of slaves paddled out to the warships seeking protection for their families from the ravages of slavery. The runaways pressured the British admirals into becoming liberators. As guides, pilots, sailors, and marines, the former slaves used their intimate knowledge of the countryside to transform the war. They enabled the British to escalate their onshore attacks and to capture and burn Washington, D.C. Tidewater masters had long dreaded their slaves as "an internal enemy." By mobilizing that enemy, the war ignited the deepest fears of Chesapeake slaveholders. It also alienated Virginians from a national government that had neglected their defense. Instead they turned south, their interests aligning more and more with their section.
In 1820 Thomas Jefferson observed of sectionalism: "Like a firebell in the night [it] awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once the knell of the union." The notes of alarm in Jefferson's comment speak of the fear aroused by the recent crisis over slavery in his home state. His vision of a cataclysm to come proved prescient. Jefferson's startling observation registered a turn in the nation’s course, a pivot from the national purpose of the founding toward the threat of disunion. Drawn from new sources, Alan Taylor's riveting narrative re-creates the events that inspired black Virginians, haunted slaveholders, and set the nation on a new and dangerous course.

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Editorial Reviews

Eric Foner
“The Internal Enemy reinforces Alan Taylor's standing as our leading historian of colonial and early national America. This deeply researched, beautifully written account of the slaves who sought freedom by escaping to the British during the War of 1812 illuminates a little-known episode in our nation's past and offers a dramatic instance of the persistent interconnections between American slavery and American freedom.”
Peter Onuf
“Alan Taylor’s brilliant new book illuminates the crucial role runaway slaves played in the devastating British campaign that led to Washington D.C.’s burning. Deeply researched and movingly told, The Internal Enemy is a great historian's masterwork.”
Mark M. Smith - The Wall Street Journal
“Impressively researched and beautifully crafted… Mr. Taylor has established himself as one of our leading historians of the Early Republic.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-25
Exemplary work of history by Pulitzer and Bancroft winner Taylor (History/Univ. of Virginia; Colonial America: A Very Short Introduction, 2012, etc.), who continues his deep-searching studies of American society on either side of the Revolution. The world the slaves made was one of fear and loathing--on the part of the masters, that is, who indeed waited in a "cocoon of dread" for the day when their "internal enemy" would finally pounce. That day first came with a series of events that form the heart of the book: namely, the arrival of the War of 1812 in Virginia, a conflict that itself was a source of conflict, inasmuch as most Virginians were sooner inclined to fight New Englanders than Englanders. When the British arrived, though, they recruited male slaves to join their army and navy as free men, and they relied on them for their "intimate, nocturnal knowledge of the byways and waterways of Virginia." The keyword is "nocturnal," for the conflict between master and slave was so great, Taylor asserts, that they contested ownership of the night, when slaves would travel more or less freely to attend dances and other social events, sleeping it off during the day, even as the masters demanded ever more work from them precisely in order to tire them enough to keep them from going abroad at night. One of the great ironies of Jefferson's ideal of white liberty, notes Taylor, was that as it expanded the middle class and with it the number of Tidewater slaveholders, it also broadened support for slavery itself. One of the ironies of the war, which would eventually produce just the uprising of the internal enemy the Virginians dreaded, was that, so inept was the federal response, it advanced the cause of states' rights, which would lead to the broader Civil War two decades after Nat Turner's revolt. Full of implication, an expertly woven narrative that forces a new look at "the peculiar institution" in a particular time and place.
Kel Munger - Sacramento Bee
“A comprehensive, scholarly work, made accessible by Taylor’s skill as a storyteller.”
James Oakes - Washington Post
“An extraordinary story [told] in vivid prose and compelling detail. Taylor . . . has important things to say about slavery,
about war, and about America.”
Stephen L. Carter - Bloomberg View
“One of the greatest works of American history I have ever read. . . . This elegantly written and carefully researched volume shatters a good deal of received wisdom.”
Elizabeth A. Fenn
“Alan Taylor has added a remarkable chapter to American history, showing how the actions of black Virginians in the War of 1812 remade the nation’s politics in ways that profoundly influenced the racialized lead-up to the Civil War. Taylor’s meticulous research and crystal-clear prose make this essential reading for anyone seeking new insights into a troubled American past.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393073713
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
09/09/2013
Pages:
624
Sales rank:
584,554
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.00(d)

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