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Publisher's Summary

National Book Award Finalist

This searing story of slavery and freedom in the Chesapeake by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian reveals the pivot in the nation’s path between the founding and civil war. Frederick Douglass recalled that slaves living along Chesapeake Bay longingly viewed sailing ships as "freedom’s swift-winged angels". In 1813 those angels appeared in the bay as British warships coming to punish the Americans for declaring war on the empire. Over many nights, hundreds of slaves paddled out to the warships seeking protection for their families from the ravages of slavery. The runaways pressured the British admirals into becoming liberators. As guides, pilots, sailors, and marines, the former slaves used their intimate knowledge of the countryside to transform the war. They enabled the British to escalate their onshore attacks and to capture and burn Washington, D.C. Tidewater masters had long dreaded their slaves as "an internal enemy." By mobilizing that enemy, the war ignited the deepest fears of Chesapeake slaveholders. It also alienated Virginians from a national government that had neglected their defense. Instead they turned south, their interests aligning more and more with their section. In 1820 Thomas Jefferson observed of sectionalism: "Like a firebell in the night [it] awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once the knell of the union." The notes of alarm in Jefferson's comment speak of the fear aroused by the recent crisis over slavery in his home state. His vision of a cataclysm to come proved prescient. Jefferson's startling observation registered a turn in the nation’s course, a pivot from the national purpose of the founding toward the threat of disunion. Drawn from new sources, Alan Taylor's riveting narrative re-creates the events that inspired black Virginians, haunted slaveholders, and set the nation on a new and dangerous course.

©2013 Alan Taylor (P)2014 Audible Inc.

Critic Reviews

"Bronson Pinchot's voice is pleasant and engaging, his narration is generally expressive and intelligent, and his modulations adequately match the sense of the text." (AudioFile)

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one of the best audiobooks I've read recently

Any additional comments?

Terrific book, a micro-history of the Virginia Chesapeake region, slavery, and the War of 1812. The author does a very skillful job providing the context from the American points-of-view, the historical background for both the slavery elements and the War. Taylor then provides a fascinating, blow-by-blow narrative of the War of 1812 in the region, one you can understand very well because of the context he has already served up. I thought the book was going to be mostly about slave escapes, and it is, but without the background that portion would be adrift. <br/><br/>I thought Bronson Pinchot's narrative approach was perfect for a history book. No need for a narrator or narration with different voices or with lots of up & down emphasis. This is a history, not a drama. I am going to seek out more of the books he's narrated for Audible.

15 of 15 people found this review helpful

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This is everything historical nonfiction should be

Would you listen to The Internal Enemy again? Why?

I would, because this is an area of history so otherwise obscure that I could appreciate both the facts and analysis a second time.

What other book might you compare The Internal Enemy to and why?

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, in that it turns the traditional narrative of American history on it's head in a way that is both convincing and compelling. By the latter portion of the book one is "rooting" for the British to burn Washington.

What does Bronson Pinchot bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

He makes the quotations, which are drawn from a small but diverse set of primary sources, stand out from one another and makes the book feel as though it has a cast of characters rather than subjects.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

It did not make me cry, but it did have one or two anecdotes that have stayed with me despite having read several books since then. In particular the story of a man who fought his way to freedom, befriended the British commander, but was ultimately captured and re-enslaved because he couldn't bear to leave his family behind.

Any additional comments?

This book deserved, hands down, to win the pulitzer prize.

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

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Best history book I've read in years

What did you love best about The Internal Enemy?

It's an incredible story: How the Brits got slaves to flee their plantations and fight with them against their former owners during the War of 1812. And that's only the highlight of the book. The author does a fantastic job of getting us to understand the reality of slavery in Virginia during this period. The author got the Pulitzer Prize for the book -- and he deserved it. Not only was his research superlative, he's a great story-teller.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

His recounting of the actual sacking of Washington during the war was incredible. Because of how awful the system of slavery was, I found myself almost rooting for the Brits and their ex-slave allies.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • M. May
  • Brookfield, CT
  • 03-25-14

Excellent Examination of Slavery in Virginia

Would you listen to The Internal Enemy again? Why?

Alan Taylor's study of slavery in Virginia during the years of the War of 1812 offers new insights for historians, and a fascinating story for those interested in slavery or the antebellum South. <br/>

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Cate F.
  • Richmond, VA USA
  • 05-15-14

Vivid & Fascinating

Certainly worthy of its Pulitzer Prize, at least to someone who has lived in Richmond for the past 35+ years. The period of 1792 to 1832 reveals some of the Founders in a dreary light. The determination of enslaved people to escape Tidewater Virginia is inspiring and certainly not what I was taught about the War of 1812.
I only gave Bronson Pinchot 4 stars, despite his beautiful reading voice, due to the number of incorrectly pronounced names and places. A few of the more frequent mispronunciations: ca-BELL instead of CAB-ull, HEN-ri-co instead of hen-RYE-co, Wythe should rhyme with Smith, and many others. But this is my constant gripe about many readers. Given all the time that goes into these readings, I do not understand why the editors do not do a bit of research on local pronunciations. Then again, if you have not spent time in Virginia, it probably won't bother you.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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A prize-winner

I have read/listen to many books about this era, but the author's thorough analysis of slavery in Virginia clearly described how Virginians became trapped into supporting slavery. Most historians skim past discussion of the U.S. Presidents from Virginia slave owning. All thought they treated their slaves liked them, but all had slaves who ran away. A marvelous book.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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A good & detailed history lesson

I rather enjoyed the very detailed accounts of this piece of American history. I found myself rooting for the British for most of the book, and understand how the US eventually ended up in a civil war.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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A View of Slavery that you won't forget

The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by Alan Taylor is an excellent discussion of the culture of slavery between the American Revolution and the Missouri Compromise. Taylor is one of the history scholars who can time travel the reader to the time he is describing. I came away knowing what a slave's life was like on a day by day basis. I discovered that the British did more for slaves in that time than any absolutionist, evangelical Christian group, or "Inalienable Rights" advocate ever did. The elaborate rationalizations that otherwise moral, fair, and humane used to justify America's original sin of slavery fascinated me at the same time they repulsed me. Finally, I learned that an honest southerner cannot take any pride in his or her unique heritage.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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A Mostly Absorbing, Moving, and Harrowing History

The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832 (2013) by Alan Taylor focuses on "the social complexities of slavery" during the War of 1812 in Virginia, setting its historical narrative in a larger context ranging throughout the USA and British empire and from just before the American Revolution to Nat Turner's 1831 uprising. Taylor quotes many letters, diaries, and "war related or war generated documents" to bring to life the personalities involved: slaves, slave owners, officers, politicians, merchants, etc. One of the strong points of the book is how Taylor captures the different views of the British and Americans regarding slavery and America and the British Empire and so on. And his depiction of the lives, plights, hopes, hearts, and deeds of slaves is uplifting, harrowing, and moving.

Without being familiar with the field, I suspect that most histories of the war of 1812 do not pay so much attention to slaves running away to freedom with the British or remaining in slavery with the Americans, becoming in the minds of white Virginians savages bent on vengeful pillage, arson, rapine, and murder, whether as bogeymen British colonial marines or internal enemy vipers in the paternal plantation bosom. Despite being American, I found myself rooting for the British to win the war and cause and or force an end to slavery back then, even at the cost of dissolving the union.

Although I wish Taylor had done a little more with the battle for New Orleans and with Nat Turner's so-called rebellion, he is not writing a WAR history of the War of 1812, but a cultural history focusing on slaves and owners. Sometimes Taylor repeats information from one section in another (e.g., saying more than once that Jonathan was a derogatory British name for Americans, that white Virginians feared the fire bell as signaling slave insurrection, and that lone slaves often ran away and returned to rescue family members), but mostly he tells a compelling history. Here are some highlights.

--When challenged with the fact of American slavery, owners blamed the British for having imposed slavery on the colonies to start with, defended slavery as a paternal system looking out for the best interests of the black "children," imagined their slaves as sub-human brutes incapable of appreciating freedom or feeling love, and decided that slavery could not be abolished without destroying the economy and culture of the south. (American heroes like Washington, Jefferson--my namesake--Madison, and Jackson are not cast in glowing lights.)
--The American Revolution increased equality and liberty for white Americans while capitalizing the slave system into greater inhumanity.
--Republicans used the issue of British impressing American sailors to declare war in 1812 partly to prove the merits of their government.
--At night when their masters slept, slaves could almost feel free, dancing, hunting, wandering, "stealing," and visiting spouses on other farms.
--By traveling about at night, slaves gained an intimate knowledge of their forests and swamps etc., and became more attached to the land than their white masters (another reason why they dreaded being sold far away and were conflicted about escaping to freedom with the British).
--While the British were encouraging slaves to escape from slavery in America to freedom on their warships, the Americans were encouraging British sailors to escape from service on their ships to freedom in America, and the War of 1812 was largely a war of persuasion.
--Propaganda, spin, and the rewriting of history were richly present before, during, and after the War of 1812, employing dodgy witnesses, sensationalizing incidents, demonizing enemies, and glorifying stalemates.

Taylor is particularly effective in covering the following things:

--why some slaves ran away and some did not.
--why escaped slaves took the family names of their former masters.
--how 40% of the slaves who escaped were mulatto children of overseers or owners, while only 44% of slave couples lived together on the same farm.
--how slave owners blamed the "perversity" of slaves running away on their inability to appreciate their "good" plantation life and on British deceit or force.
--how former masters visited British warships to try to persuade their escaped slaves to return.
--how the British colonists of Nova Scotia did not welcome the ex-slave refugees sent to settle with them.
--how the fortunes of the Tucker/Randolph/Carter slave-holding elite Virginia family rose and fell.

And Taylor turns a neat phrase:

--Jefferson et al "converted the scientific reasoning of the enlightenment from a philosophical call for equality into a biological mandate for inequality."
--"Used to dominating others, slave holders rarely took disappointment well."
--"In fact, nothing could better ignite squabbling among Americans than a scramble for $1,204,960 cast into their midst."

Reading about the appalling slave system (including incidents like a mother drowning her three children to spare them lives of slavery), it is easy to forget what Taylor reminds us of at one point: "It is too easy for modern readers to blame slavery on the 'bad people' of another time and region. Slavery reveals how anyone, now as well as then, can come to accept, perpetuate, and justify an exploitative system that seems essential and immutable. After all, we live with our own monsters."

Bronson Pinchot reads the audiobook fine, but at times he might use his fantasy action novel manner, as when he says, "He gave up the union as" and pauses a bit too long before finishing with a bit too much dread import, "utterly lost." Illustrations, maps, appendices, notes, and, of course, the bibliography, are missing from the audiobook, so readers wanting to study this subject should probably read the physical book.

Finally, anyone interested in American history in general or the slave era and the War of 1812 in particular should appreciate this book.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Good but not great

The story was interesting. The presentation was somewhat slow-paced and plodding. It did help pass the time.The history was interesting.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful