Readers may be familiar with the idea of the War of 1812 as an aftershock of the American Revolution, but they should avoid assuming that historian Alan Taylor’s new book is pro forma. In fact, Taylor’s meticulously researched, compellingly written, and richly illuminating work examines this under-studied conflict from several fascinating, interconnected perspectives.
The Internal Enemy—whose title refers to white Virginians’ awareness that “their exploitation and domination” of blacks “had bred an internal enemy who longed for freedom”—explores how (and why) during this war thousands of slaves in the American South took flight, transforming their own lives and British military strategy and undermining the security and economic well-being of white Southern slaveholders as well as their faith in the federal government as a reliable guardian of the “peculiar institution.”
Taylor ’77 begins with a reassessment of the role that slavery and the international slavery debate played in inspiring white Virginians’ commitment to the first war for American independence. He also reassesses the Revolution’s role in stirring American slaves’ faith—well beyond Yorktown—that the British king was, or could be, “their protector.”
The book then details developments in the years before 1812 that only exacerbated the slaves’ yearning for emancipation. Taylor highlights the Virginia legislature’s abolition of traditional inheritance laws that had previously “inhibited the breaking up of [slave] families by sale” and their substitution with new laws that encouraged cash-hungry slave owners to sell human property without regard to the family relationships of slaves—many of whose stories Taylor has researched with uncommon patience.
These new laws enhanced slaves’ desire for freedom not just for its own sake but increasingly as the only sure way to keep their families intact. No wonder, then, that some 5,000 slaves took their chances with the freedom-promising British invaders during the War of 1812, providing strategic intelligence, access to supplies, general labor, and even military might in the form of organized units of black marines serving under white officers.
Without giving away too much of the heart of the tale, it is worth mentioning one more of this excellent book’s many striking features: the important and persuasive connections Taylor draws between the War of 1812 and the brutal sectional conflict that began in 1861. These include the tensions the war intensified between heavily Federalist New England and the predominantly Republican South; the lasting resentment it fostered in Virginia toward the federal government, which demonstrated little apparent interest in protecting the state from invasion or preventing the slaves from running away; the willingness of the enemy to deploy black men in organized military units and otherwise to gain the victory; and white slaveholders’ postwar determination to extend slavery westward to protect it.
Taylor leaves readers shaking their heads that 19th-century scholars ever could have considered the War of 1812 unimportant and dull.
—Elizabeth D. Leonard is the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History at Colby.