UC Davis professor’s holistic look at slavery shortlisted for prestigious National Book Award

Failure to learn history only means repeating it for high school students. For the rest of us, though, not knowing history deprives us of a fundamental element of awareness.

According to Alan Taylor, a UC Davis “Distinguished Professor” in the subject, “History gives people a sense of depth perception for the world we live in now.”

Taylor, who specializes in the early American period, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his book “William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic.” Now, his latest book, “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832” (W.W. Norton & Co., $35, 624 pages), is a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award. The winner will be announced Wednesday.

In “The Internal Enemy,” Taylor focuses on the relationship between slave owners and enslaved people in the period between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, often called “the second American Revolution.”

The book begins with an action-adventure story: Barlet Shanklyn led 17 enslaved people in escaping from their Virginia masters in October 1814. Shanklyn and a small group stole a canoe, used it to get to a ferry boat, which they then stole before returning to rescue friends and family. Then they escaped to freedom by outpacing a rowboat of armed white men and connecting with the British warships patrolling the Chesapeake Bay.

Although the British had not yet outlawed slavery, granting freedom to runaways aided their war effort both by providing scouts and guides familiar with the territory and by alarming Americans with the prospect of more escapes – or even armed rebellions. This was the “internal enemy” the whites of Virginia feared most.

Shanklin’s story comes to light because, in one of Taylor’s more surprising discoveries as he researched the book, he found a letter Shanklin had written to his former master in Virginia.

“At the end of the war, the United States set up a claims commission to compensate masters who could prove their slaves had gone to the British,” Taylor said. There were about 3,000 slaves from Virginia and Maryland who had escaped.

Among the documents from that commission, Taylor found seven letters written by former slaves to their former masters that “were remarkably revealing, giving their side of the story.” Shanklin was “very clear on why he left”: the exploitation of his labor and his value as a blacksmith and as a man.

Many escape plans, like Shanklin’s, were complicated due to the necessity of escape for entire family groups.

“It was very important for (men) to be able to get out with wives and children,” said Taylor, noting that escapes were more common among young families. Escape was terribly difficult if attempted by land, but the arrival of the British warships in Chesapeake Bay made it possible to break for freedom in larger groups.

“It was still risky, but easier,” Taylor said. “What I found, which was also a surprise for me, is people not escaping from just a single plantation, but from many different farms on the same night. They come together, steal a boat, and get away to the British.”

He discovered that “even though they were from different farms, they were often related to each other. This was a way for people whose families had been disrupted, by having the husband sold away from the wife or having the children sold away from the parents, [to] escape together and be a family together in freedom.”

“The Internal Enemy” is a comprehensive, scholarly work, made accessible by Taylor’s skill as a storyteller. He focuses on individuals such as Shanklin – as well as other enslaved people, slave owners, political leaders, working-class white people, and British opponents – and by telling their stories, he brings the larger historical realities of the time to life.

For example, he tells about the inheritances of John and Richard Randolph, brothers raised by their stepfather, as a way to explain the changes in inheritance in the period after the American Revolution. Before independence, Virginia’s inheritance laws enforced what was known as entailment.

Entailment meant that “entire groups of black families are tied to the land, a particular farm or plantation,” Taylor said. Slave families in Virginia were able to stay together, because land and slaves had to remain a single unit.

But after independence, “very well-intentioned reformers, like Thomas Jefferson, wanted to equalize the distribution of property among white people by outlawing entails,” Taylor said. “This meant that the property, including enslaved people, had to be divided among all the heirs.”

While this was a radical move toward equality among white people, Taylor noted, it was “terrible for the unity of black families,” as cash-strapped slave owners sold enslaved people to the distant South or to the western frontier, where cotton plantations were in need of labor.

“While we think of the American Revolution as a very good thing for free people, which it was, it turns out it was a terrible thing for enslaved people.”

That’s the hallmark of Taylor’s work: a history of the early United States that tells the entire story, including the effects on changing politics and culture on people who were not in positions of power or leadership.

“We want to understand the lives of all the people who lived in America in 1776, a fifth of whom were held in slavery,” said Taylor, who will leave UC Davis to take the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Chair in history at the University of Virginia next year. “We must try to tell everybody’s story, so that we can understand the past more completely than if we only tell the story of a relatively few people, who just happened to be political leaders at the time.”