Every now and again I read a nonfiction book that fits neatly into the geography of multiple areas of scholarship that I have been pursuing, reinforcing previous ground covered, rounding out the sharp edges of probes made into unexplored territory, while bringing an original and entirely new perspective to certain corners of the terrain. Such is the case for the superlative Pulitzer Prize winning volume, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and the War in Virginia 1772-1832, by noted scholar Alan Taylor, whom I consider one of the greatest living historians of early American history. While The Internal Enemy focuses on the experience of the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake, it actually surveys a much wider arena – an especial talent of Taylor as a historian – which is why I found that it touches upon so many areas that I have been studying.
The “internal enemy” of the book’s title is the slave population that the planter aristocracy of the early Republic somewhat uncomfortably but stubbornly considered essential to their way of life, even while often privately confessing their revulsion for the “peculiar institution.” Their descendants would sometimes come to deny the humanity of their human property, and argue on spurious religious and moral grounds that the master-slave relationship was beneficially enshrined in the natural order of things, but at this stage justifications are clumsy at best, and perhaps best summarized by Jefferson’s much cited “wolf by the ear” agonized cop-out. (“But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”)
Despite contemporary accusations by some that we are applying unfair “political correctness” when judging the founding generation, Taylor reminds us that these guys knew that they had their arms wrapped around a great evil and nevertheless chose to abide it. The planter St. George Tucker, central to this narrative, acknowledges the incongruity of the ideals of the American Revolution and the institution of slavery, noting that “we were imposing upon our fellow men, who differ in complexion from us, a slavery ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions.” No less a patriot than Patrick Henry “conceded that the system was as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the bible, and destructive to liberty.’ But Henry never freed his own slaves due to ‘the general inconveniency of living without them.’ Slaves comprised so much property in Virginia that they could not be freed without impoverishing white men and ruining their creditors.” [p35-36] This portion of the narrative recalls for me the fine book I read last year, Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia, by Susan Dunn [reviewed by me here: https://regarp.com/2015/02/09/review-of-dominion-of-memories-jefferson-madison-the-decline-of-virginia-by-susan-dunn/], which explores the failure of the founding generation of planters to solve the problem of human chattel slavery and how that led to the decline of Virginia in the antebellum era. Taylor adds further nuance and complexity to the subject and thus deftly rebuts any attempt to give a pass to those whose soaring rhetoric on liberty failed to address their deep complicity in its antithesis, which was the foundation of their economic life.
Alan Taylor tends to personalize history, and as in his previous works The Internal Enemy carefully studies not only individuals but entire families. Despite his misgivings, it turns out that St. George Tucker ultimately reconciled himself to plantation slavery, but in a great twist of irony his stepson Charles Carter was of an abolitionist bent, and pronounced his desire to free his share of their mutual human property. Carter was thus ever after viewed by the rest of his clan with the kind of suspicion and disdain that a family today might direct towards a son and heir who was a thief or a heroin addict. [p229-30] Taylor aptly translates this into unsettling contemporary terms: “Seeing no other choice, most Virginians maintained slavery as their duty
. . . It is too easy for modern readers to feel superior by blaming slavery on the ‘bad people’ of another time and region. Slavery reveals how anyone, now as well as then, can come to accept, perpetuate, and justify an exploitative system that seems essential and immutable. After all, we live with our own monsters.” [p83]
As a historian, Taylor often shines by forcing the reader to view something we think we know very well through a completely different lens, and he does not disappoint in The Internal Enemy. For example, Jefferson was proud of his achievements in the early Republic of overturning time-honored traditions of primogeniture and entail, which formerly had granted title to the eldest son and required estates to be passed down intact. Historians have often credited the Jefferson “revolution” in this regard because it led to a greater economic democratization over time. But Taylor neatly highlights the unintended consequences. One of the cruelest aspects of American slavery was the arbitrary separation of families when members were sold away to other plantations, sometimes at great distance; the end of entail made that far more common: “Entails often had attached slaves to their estates, which barred the owners from selling them. Although certainly not meant to benefit the slaves, that feudal restriction inhibited the breaking up of their families by sale. Under the reformed laws, the division of estates tedded to divide enslaved families among multiple heirs. The changes benefited younger sons, entrepreneurs, and creditors, but not the enslaved people treated as liquid capital.” [p46]
Taylor’s previous outstanding work, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies [reviewed by me here: https://regarp.com/2015/10/01/review-of-the-civil-war-of-1812-american-citizens-british-subjects-irish-rebels-indian-allies-by-alan-taylor/] treats the largely disastrous American attempts to take Canada during the war. The Internal Enemy showcases British revenge for Canada through their punishing attacks on the Chesapeake, which the Virginia planter class felt most painfully. Just as the centrality of slavery undeniably defines the later Civil War, it is the centrality of slavery that determines Virginia’s response to the British assault. Already deeply suspicious of a central government with too much authority, and despite the fact that it was the most prominent scions of their planter class – first Jefferson and now Madison – serving as the new nation’s Chief Executives – Virginia prized its sovereignty along with its slaves. And these slaves also already inspired great fears among their owners. In fact, throughout the antebellum era across the vast southern geography where slavery thrived, slave rebellions were extremely rare, but the exaggerated possibilities ever overshadowed the jittery planters. Just as ancient Spartan armies hesitated to venture far from home for long periods lest their helots rise up, so too elite Virginians were less willing to invest manpower in armies to protect them from British incursions than in militias to protect them from imaginary slave uprisings. At the same time, they were loath to draw upon the vast human resources in their slave population to buttress their defensive posture against the invaders, although blacks had served with some distinction in the Revolutionary War. Already there was the root of the feeble claim that later echoed in the Civil War a half century later that blacks by virtue of their race were incapable of successful military service. Despite experience and common sense, enlistment of blacks, slave or free, was stubbornly resisted.
The British put a lie to this ungrounded theory by upping the ante. Not only did they vigorously encourage and abet slaves to run away to British ships, but they soon put them to impressive use as marines against their former masters. The greatest fears of the planters – that the invaders would incite slave rebellions – never came to pass, not only due to moral objections to such tactics (despite generalized British antipathy for slavery) but also because of self-interest: slaves still served as the chief labor force in often grueling conditions in British colonies in the West Indies. But there was little reluctance to the undermining of the wealthy Virginia aristocracy by encouraging slaves to flee and then helping them to return to aid the escape of family members. Racism led many British officers to doubt the capabilities of black soldiers, but this was soon overcome as the former slaves, wearing British uniforms over their lash-scarred backs, proved brave and able in combat.
Slavery could be cruel and barbaric, but conditions varied just as human beings vary. Not all planters mistreated their chattel property, but yet many slaves that lived relatively well in servitude did not hesitate to flee when the opportunity arose, to the sometimes great puzzlement of their former masters who had become conditioned by their own delusional propaganda to be surprised that few would choose slavery – even when benign – over freedom. They coped with such rejection by persuading themselves that the Brits were resorting to compulsion to force loyal servants to abscond. The British responded by summoning such masters to visit their ships and invite their former slaves back into bondage. Unsurprisingly, there were not many takers.
There is far more to this excellent book than any review could properly encapsulate. If Taylor can reasonably be faulted, it is that sometimes his books are too long and too pregnant with detail. In the case of The Internal Enemy, the concluding chapters, which serve as a bridge to the next phase of the antebellum era, could perhaps have been attenuated. Still, that hardly detracts from the well-written compelling narrative that relates a truly fascinating and little-known chapter of a little-known war – one that came to presage events that led to another much more familiar war some several decades hence. I would highly recommend this book to all students of American history.
Note: I have reviewed other works by Alan Taylor here: