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The Internal Enemy: Book summary and reviews of The Internal Enemy by Alan Taylor

The Internal Enemy

Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832

by Alan Taylor

The Internal Enemy

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Book Summary

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. 35 illustrations; 4 maps

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Book Awards

  • award image Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music, 2014

Reviews

Media Reviews

"This is a well-written and scrupulously researched examination of an important aspect of the struggle against American slavery." - Booklist

"Starred Review. Full of implication, an expertly woven narrative that forces a new look at "the peculiar institution" in a particular time and place." - Kirkus Reviews

"Impressively researched and beautifully crafted… Mr. Taylor has established himself as one of our leading historians of the Early Republic." - The Wall Street Journal

"A comprehensive, scholarly work, made accessible by Taylor's skill as a storyteller." - Sacramento Bee

"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." - Eric Foner, author of The Fiery Trial

"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." - Elizabeth A. Fenn, author of Pox Americana

"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." - Peter Onuf, author of Jefferson's Empire

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Alan Taylor has won the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes for his histories of early America. He is the Thomas Jefferson Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

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