Congratulations to University of Virginia history professor Alan Taylor on the Pulitzer Prize in History for 2014 for his expansive volume, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832. The prize was announced yesterday. Cribbing now from W.W. Norton's website:
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.
The book stretches from the days before the Revolution to the Nat Turner rebellion, but it is focused around the War of 1812 and the efforts of the British to undermine the United States by, among other things, offering freedom to enslaved people. The book concludes with a story about the compensation that some of the owners eventually received in the 1820s for the losses of their slaves. One plantation owner received something like $18,000 for the slaves who escaped his Virginia plantation. He wrote his lawyer (I think it was William Wirt) to express his gratitude at how the money saved him from financial ruin and from the need to sell his remaining slaves. This is yet another example of reparations for slavery in our history, just not the kind we usually think about these days. That is, it's about reparations for slave-owners. This also puts into some context the claims made by the slave-owners in Southampton, Virginia, who sought legislative compensation for the slaves killed as part of putting down the rebellion. I have some more to say about this in the Nat Turner trials.
I hope to have some more to say about this shortly. And I also hope that some important law journal will review this -- I think there's a lot here that's relevant to legal history. The image is of the Monumental Church in Richmond, Va. The fire that the church commemorates figures early in Taylor's book.