Exemplary work of history by Pulitzer and Bancroft winner Taylor (History/Univ. of Virginia; Colonial America: A Very Short Introduction, 2012, etc.), who continues his deep-searching studies of American society on either side of the Revolution.
The world the slaves made was one of fear and loathing—on the part of the masters, that is, who indeed waited in a “cocoon of dread” for the day when their “internal enemy” would finally pounce. That day first came with a series of events that form the heart of the book: namely, the arrival of the War of 1812 in Virginia, a conflict that itself was a source of conflict, inasmuch as most Virginians were sooner inclined to fight New Englanders than Englanders. When the British arrived, though, they recruited male slaves to join their army and navy as free men, and they relied on them for their “intimate, nocturnal knowledge of the byways and waterways of Virginia.” The keyword is “nocturnal,” for the conflict between master and slave was so great, Taylor asserts, that they contested ownership of the night, when slaves would travel more or less freely to attend dances and other social events, sleeping it off during the day, even as the masters demanded ever more work from them precisely in order to tire them enough to keep them from going abroad at night. One of the great ironies of Jefferson's ideal of white liberty, notes Taylor, was that as it expanded the middle class and with it the number of Tidewater slaveholders, it also broadened support for slavery itself. One of the ironies of the war, which would eventually produce just the uprising of the internal enemy the Virginians dreaded, was that, so inept was the federal response, it advanced the cause of states’ rights, which would lead to the broader Civil War two decades after Nat Turner’s revolt.
Full of implication, an expertly woven narrative that forces a new look at “the peculiar institution” in a particular time and place.