Authored by Lachin Hatemi M.D.
Published by www.KultureKritic.com
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Alan Taylor, one of the most celebrated experts in early American history, discussed slavery in his recent book titled “The Internal Enemy.” Mr. Taylor is a Professor of History at the University of California Davis and a contributing editor to the New Republic.
Mr. Taylor’s most recent book sheds light on the Founding Fathers and their position on slavery -a rather thought-provoking lesson in history that separates the divide between myth and reality about our Founding Fathers. I had the privilege to interview Professor Taylor.
Lachin Hatemi: The Founding Fathers were the greatest advocates of personal liberty during their times, however they also profited from the institution of slavery. Did the Founding Fathers from Virginia ever recognize their own personal contradiction?
Alan Taylor: The Founders were a diverse group with many different opinions including on the relationship between freedom and slavery. Some, such as Benjamin Franklin, cooperated with Quakers in seeking to abolish the slave trade and to hasten some program of gradual emancipation. Almost all openly conceded that slavery was morally and politically wrong, but they also worried that abolition would ruin the economy of their states and bankrupt many planters. They also knew that most of their common constituents would balk at any program to eliminate so much valuable property (as they saw it). And they feared that former slaves would seek and take vengeance as “the Internal Enemy.” - Although all of these beliefs were self-serving, they were also (unfortunately) deeply held convictions that kept them from acting on their knowledge that slavery was a malign system at odds with republican principles.
LH: How were the runaway slaves treated by the British? Why did slaves see the British as their saviors?
AT: There was a stronger abolitionist movement in Britain than in the United States. Their growing influence in Parliament had led to talk of abolishing slavery in the British colonies in the West Indies. That abolition would not come until the 1830s, but the agitation attracted a lot of attention in the U.S. during the 1810s. Picking up on the alarmed talk by their white neighbors, enslaved African Americans assumed that, in the event of war, the British would welcome runaways. The enslaved also drew upon memories of the British so welcoming runaways during the previous war: the American Revolution.
LH: During the war of 1812, the British enlisted 400 runaway into a special battalion, the Colonial Marines, to fight against their masters. What was the reaction of white Virginians when they saw their former slaves in the enemy ranks?
AT: The recruitment of runaway slaves as Colonial Marines greatly alarmed Virginians, who understood that their former slaves were very knowledgeable about the local waterways and paths. And the marines quickly became the best troops that the British could deploy in the Chesapeake. In addition to their local knowledge, the former slaves were highly motivated to fight their former masters and to prove their abilities as soldiers deserving of freedom and equality.
LH: The war of 1812 resulted in freedom for about 5,000 black refugees who were former slaves. The bulk of these refugees settled in Nova Scotia, which was the main port for the Royal British Navy in North America. How did these freed slaves describe the contrast between life under American and British rule?
AT: Most – but not all – of the refugees in Nova Scotia suffered from poverty because the colonial authorities provided them with very small tracts of very poor land. But most of those refugees made clear that they wanted to remain in Nova Scotia rather than return to slavery. Poverty was terrible, but slavery was much worse, for the free blacks no longer had to dread the rupture of their families by masters selling away husbands from wives and children from their parents. About 1,000 of the former slaves settled in Trinidad in the West Indies, and those refugees received larger plots of better land, so they thrived and persist to this day as proud communities of people who call themselves “the Merikens” because their ancestors came from America.
LH: What was the role of runaway slaves in the War of 1812? How did they influence the course of the war?
AT: The Colonial Marines greatly improved the combat performance of British shore raids in the Chesapeake during 1814. Those raids neutralized the militia in southern Maryland during the summer of 1814. By eliminating militia resistance, the raids cleared the way for the British to ascend the Patuxent River to strike at and capture Washington, D.C. Without the help of the Colonial Marines and their local expertise in the waterways, the British would have struggled to dominate southern Maryland, which was a prerequisite for success against Washington, D.C.
LH: In the wake of the American Revolution, new inheritance laws were passed. How did these laws increase public support for slavery?
AT: In the Tidewater counties of Virginia, over half of the white men either owned or rented slaves in 1812. That broad distribution of slave ownership was a result of reforms adopted during the revolution in order to encourage the inter-generational division of large plantations and their slave holdings in order to promote greater equality among the whites. Those reforms worked to spread property among more white people, but enslaved people paid a high price as they were divided among many owners, others were rented out to new masters, and many were sold away to the Deep South. All of these changes disrupted black families.
LH: Thomas Jefferson once famously stated regarding slavery: “We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Was it true that Virginians could not see a solution to end slavery? Why did they find it rather risky to let their slaves go?
AT: Jefferson and other Virginians believed that it was safer to keep blacks enslaved than to free them, for they assumed that former slaves would seek and take vengeance on their former masters. There was no evidence for this. Indeed, the free blacks of Virginia almost never, ever killed white men. Most murdered white men were killed by other whites. But beliefs can persist without evidence as we can see in our own time. Jefferson did want to free the slaves, but he insisted that it had to be done very slowly, over two or three generations, and that all the former slaves had to be shipped away to some distant colony in either West Africa or the West Indies. That was so prohibitively expensive that it was a program that would never be accepted by the taxpayers of Virginia.
LH: What was the primary source you depended on to find the written accounts of the runaway slaves?
AT: After the War of 1812, the U.S. government set up a claims commission to compensate masters who could dominate that their slaves had run away during the war to the British. The rich documentation in the surviving files includes some letters from former slaves to their former masters or to family members left behind in Virginia or Maryland.
LH: What new information does “The Internal Enemy” present to readers?
AT: No previous book has drawn upon the claims commission records to document the words and deeds of the War of 1812 runaways. Those records reveal some extraordinary stories of danger, courage and triumph.
LH: Professor Taylor, it was a privilege to interview you. Thank you very much.
AT: Thank you; it’s been a pleasure to answer your questions.
Lachin Hatemi is a physician in Buffalo, New York. His interests include human rights, medical education and interfaith dialogue. You can reach Lachin at Lachinhatemi@gmail.com.