In its 175 years, The Lyceum in Alexandria has hosted some distinguished guests including President John Quincy Adams. Last night, Alan Taylor joined that select group. His 2013 book, “The Internal Enemy, Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832,” earned him the Pulitzer Prize for History.
In front of a packed audience, Dr. Taylor’s lecture focused on enslaved humans who escaped to the British during the War of 1812. I asked him if any escapes took place in Alexandria. He said yes, but mostly along the Northern Neck and middle of the Tidewater.
Taylor’s talk reminds us that so much depends on perspective. The basic outline of the War of 1812 is that, for most Americans, the invading British were the bad guys. But for enslaved African-Americans, they saw the sights of their tall ships as something entirely different. As noted in the front sleeve of “The Internal Enemy,” Frederick Douglass recalled that slaves living along the Chesapeake Bay viewed the sailing ships as “freedom’s swift-winged angels.”
Taylor began his lecture by showing a letter that Bartlett Shanklyn sent to his former master (Abraham Hooe) after he escaped and began living in Nova Scotia. Shanklyn, who Taylor describes as a “prized blacksmith, thirty-five years old and worth $800, had helped 16 others find their freedom on an October night in 1814.
Five years on, Shanklyn was doing quite well in Preston, Nova Scotia. He let Hooe know this.
Taylor pointed out that Shanklyn symbolized clever and subtle resistance. In fact, Shanklyn had used those very words in his letter.
"That night Cokely stopped me he was very strong but I showed him that subtlety was far preferable to strength…"
Alexandria planners have been looking for poignant stories that took place here during the War of 1812. You have to give them credit. On the signature event day coming up in late August, they’ve arranged for a friendly tug of war that will pit British-Americans against some locals.
Don’t be surprised if not everyone roots for the home team. Like I said, perspective is the beginning of understanding. And we thank Alan Taylor for so wonderfully pointing that out last night and in his prize-winning book.