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Book Review: Alan Taylor: The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832

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Alan Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize winning history of slavery in Virginia during the American Revolution and Early Republic is truly outstanding.

The American Revolution created a rhetoric of equality that contributed to emancipation in the North but in the South and especially in Virginia, where so many of the Founding Fathers originated, it created a society of white male freedom that deepened its tyranny over slaves. Abolition of primogeniture meant that younger heirs had increased property rights, which led to a greater division of property, usually of the human variety. Slave families were torn apart at much higher rates than before the Revolution and while some owners might try to avoid that, most did not care, justifying their actions by dehumanizing Africans as quasi-animals who did not really suffer.

Post-revolutionary Virginia society recommitted to slavery after brief discussions of manumissions and owners developed a bifurcated understanding of their slaves. Individually, they demeaned and condescended to them, thinking them largely harmless and feeling themselves secure. Owners could develop close relationships with slaves, including sexual relationships that would produce additional property for the master. Even something like friendships could develop, although entirely at the behest of the owner. On the other hand, owners expressed outright terror at the collective slave population, an internal enemy that at any moment would rise up and kill all whites. That fear grew every more salient after the success of the Haitian Revolution and the establishment of a nation out of a slave revolt. Even though Haiti and Virginia had very little in common, including that Haiti had very few whites while in much of Virginia the slave population wasn’t even a local majority, the fear of a slave revolt grew and grew. Yet Virginians argued that they could only be free if they enslaved Africans. Believing that the races could never live together in harmony (which to be fair was widely believed in the North as well), the choices for Virginians were slavery or the mass deportation of slaves. But with most of their capital wrapped up in slaves, emancipation and deportation schemes were politically dead on arrival, not to mention woefully underfunded even as proposals. Virginia would continue committing to slavery as the basis of white freedom.

Slaves themselves were ready to run at the first opportunity, if not revolt and kill their masters. Nothing motivated them more than the breakup of their families through sale or gift. After the Revolution, slave sales increased rapidly as debt-bound Virginian planters found a great market for their excess labor as the nation expanded to the west and invested in cotton. What war did was give them a chance to escape their hellish lives. That first happened in the American Revolution. But it would be the War of 1812 where thousands would take tremendous risks to save themselves and their families, often with astounding success.

The centerpiece of the book is the War of 1812. Taylor portrays the war as a true civil war “between kindred people sharing the same language and cultural heritage,” (184) a war not too different than the American Civil War of the 1860s in that regard. It was a civil war for the Irish immigrants that had fled to the United States to escape British rule but were then impressed on British ships, a near civil war between Federalist New England and the Jeffersonian South, and of course a civil war between the African and European population of the South. The British were disgusted by southerners, who they saw as huge hypocrites for wailing on about liberty while enslaving Africans. Said Captain William Stanhope Lowell of the Royal Navy:

Republicans are certainly the most cruel masters, and the greatest tyrants in the world towards their fellow men. They are urged by the most selfish motives to reduce every one to a level with, or even below themselves, and to grind and degrade those under them to the lowest stage of human wretchedness But American liberty consists in oppressing blacks beyond what other nations do, enacting laws to prevent their receiving instruction and working them worse than a donkey. (139-40)

During the war, the British Navy discovered as it sailed the Chesapeake and surrounding bays that luring slaves away from their masters was a good military strategy. The British knew where the support for the war was located and wanted to punish those Jeffersonians. The slaves could help them do that because they knew the waterways and terrain. But the slaves had a demand–the British had to help them rescue their families as well. While at first the British bemoaned this, they soon embraced it because black troops were so effective and because taking more slaves directly impacted the enemy. 3400 Virginia slaves fled to the British during the war and nearly every one of them experienced a better life than they had in slavery, even as they left friends and family behind. Taylor provides powerful stories throughout this section of how slaves freed themselves and then went back to free their families, or how they tried to free themselves and failed and were caught and punished. The British organized escaped slaves into the Colonial Marines, which proved an effective combat unit that gained a tremendous amount of respect from British officers, which were dealing with desertion problems from their Irish soldiers.

This doesn’t mean that the ex-slaves lived easy lives in the years after their freedom. They often faced intense discrimination, especially in Nova Scotia, where racist governors and populations resented their presence. But in Trinidad, where many of the Colonial Marines ended up, they flourished, even as locals worried about the influence of these ex-slaves on those still in bondage. Reports from the late 1810s noted the rapid progress made by the ex-slaves in creating economic self-sufficiency. Their problem of being primarily men and lacking partners was somewhat solved when the British started delivering women off intercepted slave ships in Trinidad to live with the Americans. Over time, a culturally distinctive people developed out of these communities. Moreover, they repeatedly asserted their rights and their freedom, often in letters to their ex-masters. Virginians tried to convince themselves that their slaves were duped and that their lives were better on the plantation, but this of course was totally rejected by the ex-slaves themselves.

So by the time of Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831, the Virginia slaveholders were already afraid of their own internal enemy, even as they repeatedly denied the problem in public to northerners. But in their letters to each other, they constantly worried about rebellion that would kill them all. Nat Turner of course was an anomaly, the only time in Virginia that a slave revolt had the explicit goal of massacring whites. Moreover, the inability of the nation to protect white Virginia’s human property during the war led Virginia politicians to develop a radical states-rights argument that manifested itself to frightening results during the Missouri statehood crisis in 1819. That was eventually put to rest with the Missouri Compromise, but of course reappeared ever more frequently until Virginia succeeded from the union in 1861.

Mostly I’ve run down Taylor’s story and argument, but I also want to stress the book’s readability. I have stated before that we are in a golden age of historical writing, with professional historians writing excellent texts for a general audience that tell tough stories. Count The Internal Enemy as another of those books. Taylor weaves a very strong narrative through focusing on a few leading white Virginian families, particularly that of St. George Tucker, and including the words of slaves whenever possible, which was often in their letters to Virginia after escape. Those letters survive because owners submitted them to the government for compensation when the British finally paid some money in the 1820s to get the U.S. to stop harassing it about the escaped slaves. It’s the kind of book you could give you dad if he likes to read about George Washington and you want to challenge him a little bit. It was a great choice for the Pulitzer. I highly recommend this book to all readers.

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  • Warren Terra

    This doesn’t mean that the ex-slaves lived easy lives in the years after their freedom. They often faced intense discrimination, especially in Nova Scotia, where racist governors and populations resented their presence.

    Indeed, this is ongoing to this day, with renewed efforts just last month to obtain land titles for the descendents of Black loyalists who settled in Nova Scotia two hundred years ago.

  • cpinva

    should you ever have occasion to come to VA, take the time to visit some of the many plantations scattered about the state. many of them have gone to great lengths to show just how horrible slavery actually was. this is almost a complete reversal from when I was younger, when they almost universally made it seem almost benign, a remnant of the “Lost Cause” mythology.

  • rea

    The British were disgusted by southerners, who they saw as huge hypocrites for wailing on about liberty while enslaving Africans.

    The British Empire did not abolish slavery until 1834. The slave trade was abolished in the Empire in 1807, a whole year before its abolition in the US.

    • Joe_JP

      But, they didn’t “wail on about liberty” to the same degree — they had nobility etc. Plus, “wailing on about liberty” while having slavery right there, not out there in some islands, might especially seemed hypocritical to them.

    • Thom

      Both countries passed abortion acts in 1807, and in both cases they became effective in 1808. The US allowed an exception, through an act of Congress, for slave owners from St. Domingue (Haiti) to bring about 3k slaves into Lousiiana (by way of Cuba, where they had been for several years) in, I believe, 1809. And of course smuggling continued.

      • Lee Rudolph

        “Abolition”, not “abortion”?

        • Thom

          Ha, right.

  • namgalsipsclar

    I picked this book up in a bookstore a while back to leaf through it because I found the premise fascinating. Then I found an error that almost certainly wasn’t Taylor’s fault, but that I had a disproportionately and pedantically strong reaction to.

    The front matter in the book included a map of the US circa (iirc) 1812, which unfortunately depicted DC with its current boundaries, rather than showing it as a full 10-mile square including Arlington and Alexandria on the Virginia side of the Potomac. It wasn’t until the late 1840s that the Virginia portion was retroceded, which happened in part due to Alexandria’s role in the slave trade and the (justified) fear that slave trading might be abolished in DC.

    I get that this is no reason to disregard the rest of the book, and I do mean to give it another shot (thanks for the review), but noticing this error was a huge disappointment that left a bad taste in my mouth. (Don’t publishers have people to check these things? And this was the paperback edition, so it should’ve had even more pairs of eyes on it.)

    EDIT: Crud, this may have been his book The Civil War of 1812 instead. I forget.

  • Cheerful

    The British were concerned because their Irish soldiers kept disappearing? All the world can see the logs in the eyes of the others despite the logs in their own eyes.

  • Slightly off-topic, but any thoughts (or plans to write about) the WGN series Underground, about a group of slaves trying to make the journey north? I thought the first episode was schlocky, but in a good way – it stresses the agency and dynamism of the slave characters, without wallowing in misery porn, but also doesn’t avoid the very real misery caused by slavery.

    • Never even heard of it. Will look into it.

    • Joe_JP

      I saw a rough cut of the first episode and thought it kinda schlocky but having some promise. I only caught one or two episodes of their other historical programs, but I appreciate the effort to focus on historical fiction.

  • witlesschum

    Definitely on the too read list. I really enjoyed Taylor’s The Civil War of 1812, which really did a great job of explaining the complexity of the war.

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