Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prize Watch: Pulitzer in History to Alan Taylor

Alan Taylor, the American historian whose The Civil War of 1812 was the one really terrific book I saw that came out of the 1812 bicentennial (okay I missed a lot of them), has won the Pulitzer Prize in History.
Awarded to "The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832," by Alan Taylor (W.W. Norton), a meticulous and insightful account of why runaway slaves in the colonial era were drawn to the British side as potential liberators.
The problem of why enslaved persons preferred potential liberators over continued slavery seems like one of those questions Americans take seriously and everyone else says, well, duh. (Was Jefferson hypocritical about liberty? being another notable one.)  But Alan Taylor is a terrific historian, and I'm sure the Pulitzer jury discerned merit here. Indeed, the publishers' summary of what the book is about suggests a narrative a lot more substantial than the prize citation proposes:

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.
Last night Taylor, as it happened, was also one of the talking heads on the rebroadcast War of 1812 documentary A Desert between Us and Them.
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