*The Internal Enemy*

by on November 1, 2013 at 7:36 am in Books, History, Law, Political Science | Permalink

The author is Alan Taylor and the subtitle is Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.

This is one of the best history books I have read, ever.  Every sentence is excellent (is there higher praise?).  And let me add: 1) I hate reading books about Virginia, and 2) I feel “I’ve read enough books about slavery.”

I learned a great deal about a variety of topics including The War of 1812, how the British used escaped slaves against the Americans, the tensions between western and Tidewater Virginia, the early Virginia debates about how to eventually deport the slaves.  But that hardly gets at what makes this book special.  More importantly than any of those specifics, it brings an entire period to life in a memorable manner.

I read this one because Jon Elster urged me too.  Don’t forget, by the way:

In 1819 Virginia remained the preeminent slave state, home to nearly a third of the nation’s one and a half million slaves.

Very highly recommended, I hope it wins the National Book Award and it will be prominent on my forthcoming best books of 2013 list.

dearieme November 1, 2013 at 8:47 am

Every sentence is excellent (is there higher praise?)

Hyperbole sometimes undermines praise.

charlie November 1, 2013 at 9:23 am

It sounds as if, judging from the lack of knowledge of some basic facts, that the reviewer should read far more books about Virginia and its history.

PD Shaw November 1, 2013 at 10:11 am

This was my initial response, but to be fair, he lists “topics” that he learned a great deal about, not the facts listed.

JCE November 1, 2013 at 9:33 am

what are the other great history books you’ve read?

matt foley November 1, 2013 at 9:37 am

so you finished this one then?

choncan November 1, 2013 at 5:05 pm

oh, man. you really got him good.

Ray Lopez November 1, 2013 at 10:58 am

@the TC haters above this comment: Lilliputians criticizing an Intellectual Giant–one of the great themes of literature.

If you enjoy reading about the early American history and economics, a book I recommend (that I’m reading now) is:

“The Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution” by Charles R. Morris, which discusses, inter alia, a great naval arms race on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812, which also features Indian allies.

Therapsid November 1, 2013 at 11:11 am

Tyler invites the hatred.

He’s straight up trolling with comments like: 1) I hate reading books about Virginia, and 2) I feel “I’ve read enough books about slavery.”

Why Virginia? And why the scare quotes around the slavery comment?

The answer – he’s trolling us.

Personally, I enjoy it. Alex has good posts, but he’s too earnest sometimes. TC keeps it light.

dan1111 November 1, 2013 at 11:26 am

Trolling? #1 maybe, but #2 is obviously just a standard use of quotes, not “scare quotes”. Consider the difference between these two statements:

Therapsid’s “comments” sure are “insightful”.

“Wow, I am being really pedantic”, I thought to myself.

john personna November 1, 2013 at 11:44 am

I think they were “distance quotes” to make the second appear less firmly held. That’s fine.

(I use “I just invented a new phase” quotes above.)

Thor November 1, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Sheesh. You call that trolling? TC is reporting on what he thinks/feels about something. In saying that I dislike books on the Neo-Scandinavian movement in Portuguese literature (*), is that trolling?

(*) The Clicking of Cuthbert.

Dan S November 1, 2013 at 12:06 pm

I took it as more of a “I’m saying something kind of politically incorrect (after all, is there such a thing as reading enough books about slavery?) but am putting it in quotes to soften the blow so it doesn’t come across too badly.”

collin November 1, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Why do you feel you have read enough books about slavery? I find the topic endlessly interesting because the contradiction of some of the greatest writers, thinkers and politician of human freedom also owned (a lot) of slaves can never be entirely resolved. Also, I find the contradiction of the Civil War can never resolved as about whether or right the war was for just reasons for both the Confedacy and the Union.

john personna November 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm

As a Californian, I suspect that Virginians do not read enough about the Mission Period.

prior_approval November 2, 2013 at 9:34 am

You are right, of course.

But when during that same period, you had Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence, George Mason writing the Virginia Declaration of Rights with its provision for religious freedom, and along with Madison being the premier architects of the Bill of Rights, George Washington leading the Continental Army to victory over the British Empire, and the creation of the Monroe Doctrine, what was going on in California during that period actually seems pretty insignificant in merely American terms, much less world historical ones.

john personna November 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm

“Monterey in 1786″ (Heyday Books) is a nice little read.

The Anti-Gnostic November 1, 2013 at 12:46 pm

the contradiction of some of the greatest writers, thinkers and politician of human freedom also owned (a lot) of slaves can never be entirely resolved

It can, once you realize that a non-trivial portion of the population is incapable of independent living. Currently, millions of people would starve or be killed without prisons and welfare. In another era, they would have been slaves.

john personna November 1, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Alternate explanation: the distance we can move from our fathers is finite.

Hoosier November 1, 2013 at 2:20 pm

So you’re saying that they shipped them over from Africa to save them? That their lives as slaves were better than they would have been on their own in Africa? That slave life in the early 19th century is equivalent to the welfare state today? Sorry, but none of these are reasonable statements.

Harold Lloyd November 1, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Their progeny is sure better off for it.

Craig November 1, 2013 at 7:43 pm

By which logic Hitler and Hirohito were the greatest humanitarians of the 20th Century…

The Anti-Gnostic November 2, 2013 at 12:22 am

Without foreign aid, the population in Africa would be far smaller. Without welfare, net tax consumers would not be able to afford food and shelter in the advanced economies of the West. Their only bargaining chip for employment would be lifetime servitude.

Rachel Jeantel, for example, will be a net tax consumer her entire life. Without government transfer payments, she would die, or live at a level of primitive subsistence at best.

choncan November 1, 2013 at 4:45 pm

“It can, once you realize that a non-trivial portion of the population is incapable of independent living. Currently, millions of people would starve or be killed without prisons and welfare. In another era, they would have been slaves.”

LOL

Bob November 6, 2013 at 6:20 pm

It’s hard to affect change and being productive while holding a very revolutionary worldview. See too many problems, and you will either be shunned, or lack the focus to affect change.

There’s also the fact that slavery is extremely convenient for those that are not slaves. Cognitive dissonance happens all the time, but it’s extremely common when said dissonance is just very convenient. Ask the people that considered themselves hetero males and yet had encounters in public bathrooms, or those that preached against drugs while partaking in them. We are just wired to dislike hypocrisy and yet be hypocrites.

Stephen Carter November 1, 2013 at 12:36 pm

I agree with Tyler. I have read nearly every important book about slavery, and many unimportant ones. The Taylor volume is by far one of the two or three best. It’s a new perspective, it presents fresh evidence, and it includes a wealth of detail on matters that others gloss over.

I would go further. Over the past thirty years, I have read probably six or seven hundred books on American history, perhaps more. This one is easily in the top ten. I can’t recall the last time I read a history book that so fascinated me.

Thor November 1, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Would you mind telling us what (some of) the other top ten are, in your opinion?

I’m not American but read a lot. However, I don’t want to read 100s of books on American history, though I’ll read the top ones. Thanks.

Craig November 1, 2013 at 9:24 pm

I’ll make so bold as to say that you can do a lot worse than “American Slavery, American Freedom.”

Tim Nutt November 1, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Anything by Ron Chernow but especially House of Morgan.

Donald Pretari November 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm

I don’t know if anyone else is interested, but, yesterday, I happened to Download the “Proceedings and Debates of the Virginia State Convention of 1829-1830: To which are Subjoined, the New Constitution of Virginia, and the Votes of the People, Pages 94-830 (Google eBook)” http://books.google.com/books?id=K_ERAAAAYAAJ&oe=UTF-8

Among other things, the Delegates to the Convention included John Randolph, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Marshall. I bought the Alan Taylor Book. Generally, I buy the books Tyler Cowen and Brad DeLong recommend.

freethinker November 1, 2013 at 1:25 pm

In addition to Jon Elster, who else can persuade you read a book on a topic you hate and/or read enough about?

ed November 1, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Taylor’s “American Colonies” also received high praise, and has long been on my to-read list. Which book should I read first?

Craig November 1, 2013 at 7:42 pm

I think American Colonies was brilliant in many ways. First for the way it tries to write a history of colonial North America on its own terms, and not as a mere prelude to the American Revolution. Second for the way it labors to see the Native peoples of the time in the way that is hardest for us to see them–as human beings, and not as either sub-humans or super-humans. I recommend it without reservation.

jon livesey November 1, 2013 at 3:56 pm

“…how the British used escaped slaves against the Americans…”

I expect they did, but that’s a somewhat incomplete sentence. The British also helped a lot of escaped slave leave the US altogether. UK courts refused to return escaped slaves to their US owners, and something like 30,000 escaped slaves made it to Canada, where they were automatically free the moment they stepped on Canadian soil.

Craig November 1, 2013 at 7:39 pm

The air of Canada is too pure for a slave to breathe.

And the air of America, now, thank God.

Scott McGuire November 1, 2013 at 3:56 pm

That description reminds me of how I felt after reading “Crucible of War” by Fred Andersen. I’ll add this one to my list. Taylor’s “American Colonies” was good too.

Craig November 1, 2013 at 7:37 pm

I have not yet had the pleasure of Andersen’s book on the late unpleasantness with France. But plus as many as I can to “American Colonies.” It’s magnificent history.

Xiao Jing November 1, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Good lord, man, are you rummaging through my genealogy now? And — I suspect — reading my emails? Well… the book looks good, so I guess I’ll allow it…. just remember I, too, know people in NOVA and can have drones sent after you.

This episode works as an allegory that dovetails nicely with my theory of the world as a multi-layered prison colony, something akin to a giant Russian doll. If you manage to transcend one layer, you will only find yourself in yet another prison, ever larger and more terrible than the last. Indeed, life itself can be seen as a prison camp from which no one escapes alive. To rebel is idiotic, and this is what makes libertarians so amusing. The goal is to perfect a system of competitive subjugation such that the inmates are never again allowed to run the asylum, and, in time, come to prefer their servitude instead.

It seems a bitter pill to swallow, but there will be many opportunities for levity along the way, such as mocking the poor, crushing the elderly, raping the environment and so on.

Craig November 1, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Many American conservatives feel they’ve heard enough about slavery.

I wonder why that is?

Thomas Jefferson writes to John Adams that the great theme of history is the conflict between “the few” and “the many,” and identifies himself with “the many,” Adams with “the few.” Five lifetimes are not long enough to meditate on that remark.

Tim Nutt November 1, 2013 at 11:51 pm

Thomas Jefferson was among the most hypocritical aristocrats in the history of the world. His comment is nothing more than simple narcissistic self-delusion.

prior_approval November 2, 2013 at 9:31 am

‘hypocritical aristocrats’

Jefferson was untitled – and being a republican revolutionary, wrote one of the more definitive documents rejecting aristocracy in the history of mankind.

Although, you might be right – only a hypocritical aristocrat could write the following – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

It would have been better to call Jefferson a hypocritical slave holder – after all, he was most certainly that.

dan1111 November 2, 2013 at 3:49 am

And yet Jefferson owned slaves, while Adams refused to on principle. What is your point, again?

DH November 4, 2013 at 10:32 am

Alan Taylor is a fantastic writer and historian. If you like his style, also check out his book William Cooper’s Town about, you guessed it, William Cooper, the creation of Cooperstown, NY and politics and economy of colonial and early republic New York.

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