Monday, March 31, 2014

The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832

How often do you read a book that changes your mind about something on which you had a settled opinion? Until reading Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, I felt fairly certain in my opinion that the War of 1812 was the last war fought by the U.S. government against a foreign government for politically progressive ends. (The first, and only other, being the Revolutionary War.) I had not researched it closely, but based the view on a general sentiment of small-r republicanism, some scant familiarity with events on the Canadian front (where invading U.S. troops had support from Quebecois patriots, upon which the Americans were too militarily and politically inept to capitalize), and the lingering effects of the formation of U.S. nationalist mythologies on how history is usually taught. ("Impressment, grr!") Thanks to Taylor's book, I've concluded instead that the war was reactionary on both sides, fought by the British to secure their command of the high seas in service to the growth of their empire, while cementing the white supremacist foundations of the emerging national identity of the United States.

That is not to say that the pretexts for the war were wholly without merit on the U.S. side. Were one an Irish-born laborer or sailor who had migrated to the U.S. and taken naturalized citizenship, vulnerable to being impressed at sea by one's former colonizers or even hanged by them as a "traitor," the fight would be nearly irresistible. But the Virginian slaves who fled to His Majesty's warships, helped British forces navigate the waterways and terrain of the Chesapeake region, and in many cases donned the red coats of the Colonial Marines, had no less imperative to fight, perhaps more. By focusing on the Virginian front, Taylor uncovers a story of how members of an oppressed people used a collision between great powers to force an immediate improvement in their situation, by passing from slavery to freedom.

Still less is it to say, however, that Britain attempted to wage a "revolutionary war" to free the slaves, as the Union under Lincoln later (reluctantly) did to win the Civil War. They did no such thing, and had no such intentions, despite the romantic dreams of a few low-ranking British officers. (These figures deserve to be less obscure than they have become, and some, such as Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Armbrister, earned a place in the same martyrology as Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and John Brown.) One would have to be appallingly naive to believe that the same British Empire that was conquering India, allying with the Russian Tsar to crush the last smoldering embers of the French Revolution, clinging to its own plantation colonies in the West Indies, and doing most of the work of maintaining the naval blockade of Haiti, would do any such thing--even if it had abolished slavery on its native soil and was suppressing the slave trade on the high seas. The actions of the British naval officers who encouraged, freed, and armed the runaway slaves were opportunistic in motivation and extent.

What this book also did for me, though, was provide an additional piece in the puzzle of the role of the Black Atlantic in the rise of capitalism in the early 19th century. Among white decision-makers on both sides, British and American, one finds repeated, horrified, even panicked references to "St. Domingue," i.e., Haiti. If Marx and Engels were right that by 1848 the "specter of communism" was haunting Europe, then in the slave ports and plantations of the Americas there was already, more than three decades before, another specter (or the same specter in a different guise?), with the name of Dessalines.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Rare is the academic history book that is so compellingly readable: I finished its 400+ pages in about 4 days. It moves seamlessly between the military history of the Chesapeake campaign, the social history of the "slave neighborhoods" of adjoining estates, the stories of particular slaveholding families who embody the contradictions of the early white man's republic, commercial history of the tobacco market, and the high politics of states at war.

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