One of the nation’s premier experts in Colonial America and the early U.S. republic is on his way to the University of Virginia. And when Alan Taylor arrives to begin teaching next fall, he could be unpacking a National Book Award as he settles onto Grounds.
Taylor, who has already received Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes for his writing, said he is “delighted and honored” that his recent book, “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832,” has been nominated for the award.
“‘The Internal Enemy’ tells the story of about 3,000 enslaved Africans from the Chesapeake region who escaped slavery by fleeing to the British and helping them to wage war on the United States during the War of 1812,” Taylor said. “The book sets that story in the context of the shifting nature of slavery after the American Revolution.”
Taylor recently agreed to join the faculty of U.Va.’s Corcoran Department of History and will be Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor. A professor at University of California at Davis for the past 20 years, Taylor will begin teaching at U.Va. in the fall of 2014.
“Alan Taylor is indisputably the national and international leader in a field which is so important to the life of this department,” said Paul Halliday, who chairs U.Va.’s history department. “He has an enviable record as a teacher and is a proven program-builder and public intellectual of high stature.”
Halliday said Taylor will help sustain the University’s long and close relationship with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation – which owns and operates Monticello, Jefferson’s Albemarle County home – and with the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, the foundation’s research center.
In 2012, Taylor served as a fellow in residence at the center. He used the resources of the Jefferson Library to finish his manuscript for “The Internal Enemy.”
“In the field of the early history of the republic, teaching at U.Va. is the best job in the country,” Taylor said. “I will have superb colleagues, many of whom I know already. I was very impressed with the graduate students.”
Taylor is highly regarded as a historian who has reshaped how fellow historians and the general public look at the topic. Halliday described him as a pioneer in “microhistory,” which examines particular episodes, places or small groups of people so that broader meanings become apparent. Halliday said Taylor has also broken ground in conceiving early American history as part of a global story, especially around the Atlantic Ocean.
“It is a story about forces and actors at work all around the Atlantic,” Halliday said, “such as the competition of multiple European empires in, for, and around North America; the commerce in human lives brought forcibly from the west of Africa; contacts among multiple cultures as they traded, conducted political negotiations, intermarried, and so on. Truly great writing about the American past, like Alan’s, reveals just how deeply embedded we are and always have been in the world around us.”
“Alan Taylor is a master historian at the top of his game,” said S. Max Edelson, associate professor and director of graduate studies in U.Va.’s history department. “He has dug deep into the archives to reconstruct a world of war, slavery and freedom in early 19th-century Virginia.
“Outgoing Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor Peter Onuf has helped build a remarkable program in early American history at U.Va., and Taylor will help us continue this tradition of excellence.”
Edelson said Taylor has been a regular guest at the U.Va.-Monticello Early American Research Seminar, a collaboration between the Corcoran Department of History and the International Center for Jefferson Studies.
“We are delighted that he now has a permanent seat around the seminar table, to the great benefit of the graduate students who present their work to this dynamic intellectual community,” he said.
Aside from this current work, Taylor is the author of five other major books: “Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier,” “William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic,” “The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution,” “American Colonies: The Settling of North America” and “The Civil War of 1812.”
Taylor won both the Pulitzer Prize for history and the Bancroft Prize in 1996 for “William Cooper’s Town.”
“Alan's ‘William Cooper’s Town’ and ‘The Divided Ground’ teach us so much about larger forces at work in our past, such as the expansion of European civilization into the North American continent and the interaction of different cultures, by telling often-intimate stories about the relationships of individuals,” Halliday said. “Part of the force of his analytic work arises from the poignancy of the stories he tells and the lives he evokes.
“Perhaps the most important characteristic across all his writing and teaching is his concern for people who have been overlooked – Native Americans, slaves, women, people who spoke many languages and who readily crossed ill-defined frontiers – in order to reconfigure the larger narratives of our past.”
Some historians consider his “American Colonies” book to be the definitive overview of Colonial America, and have praised him for expanding conceptual boundaries and digging deeply in the archival record, Halliday said.
“Alan Taylor is among the most pre-eminent historians of the Jefferson era,” Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, said. “He is an advocate of public history and strongly supports the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s dual mission of preservation and education. We are delighted to welcome him to his new position as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor at the University of Virginia and to collaborate with him during his tenure at U.Va.”
“Alan Taylor is without a doubt the most important scholar in the U.S. currently training the next generation of scholars in this field,” Halliday said. “In addition to training his own students, I know students in many other fields, such as the 19th-century U.S. or the British or Spanish empires, will be keen to study with him.”
Taylor is the fourth Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor in History since 1958 when the endowed chair was created. The first holder of the chair was Pulitzer Prize winner Dumas Malone, best known for “Jefferson and His Time,” his six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson. He was followed by notable Jefferson scholars Merrill Daniel Peterson and, most recently, Peter S. Onuf, who retired in 2012.