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The City Journals

Pulitzer Prize winner, American history professor speaks to area high school students

Mar 07, 2018 09:34AM ● By Julie Slama

University of Virginia professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor signs his name after he talked to area high school students about the War of 1812. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

If you were to ask Canadians who won the War of 1812, their reply would be “Canadians,” according to a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian, who is the Thomas Jefferson chair in American history at the University of Virginia.

“Canadians usually get upset about two things — hockey and the War of 1812,” said Alan Taylor, who is known for his expertise in American history. “Canada was actually part of the No. 1 super power of the British Empire then, but it was in the Great Lakes region where they would claim their defeat of the United States.”

According to Taylor, both the U.S. and Canada would build larger battle ships than the other country on Lake Ontario.

“Whatever was built on Lake Ontario, stayed there. The largest ship had 102 cannons and was about half the size of Old Ironside,” Taylor said. “The British troops in Canada were professionals and the U.S. had its 6,000 men, most raw recruits, scattered from Maine to Louisiana. The militia of New York wouldn’t cross the Niagara River because they weren’t part of the U.S. military. A lot of factors contributed, but the fact remains the U.S. did poor in the north and the goal to change the boundary didn’t happen, so Canada insists it won the battle.” 

This began the afternoon session of the seventh annual all-day social studies colloquium at Alta High with about 250 students and teachers from Alta, Jordan and Brighton high schools. 

“This is a phenomenal experience for our students to meet this quality of historian and expert in American history,” Alta history teacher Rique Ochoa said. “He not only has presented sessions to the students in the auditorium, but he has sat down with my advanced students to discuss topics and answer their questions.”

Taylor answered questions from manifest destiny — which is an overused or abused phrase, he said — to who should be on the $20 bill — “Jackson doesn’t look as good as he used to; he was a powerful president and a war hero, but he also was a slave holder, invader and killed Indians unnecessarily during the war.” 

He also discussed whether statues focusing on the confederacy should be removed: “We need to understand people and look at the time, what they were dealing with and their climate.” 

Ochoa, who had his students read Taylor’s books in preparation for the visit, said while this experience would help them in preparation of their AP American history exam this spring, it was more to give them a “rich experience in understanding more of the complex issues in history, not just learning what happened when. It’s a great opportunity for them to face a Pulitzer Prize author they’ve read.”

Taylor said although he regularly lectures, it is unusual for him to address high school students. He came at the request of Ochoa, who had asked him a few years ago to be part of the social studies colloquium.

“We had to wait as he already had accepted the Harmsworth professor chair at the University of Oxford,” Ochoa said.

Currently, Taylor is working on a higher education book about the 19th century, saying there is a lot of focus now on Thomas Jefferson.

“I loved history and I made a career in which I can read a history book,” Taylor said. “I hope my writing helps others. The worst thing a historian can do is preach. I try to understand everybody. For example, it may be a terrible thing that people were slaveholders, but it doesn’t mean everything they do is terrible.”

He wrote this first book in 1990 and then in 1995, he penned “William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic,” which won the 1996 Pulitzer. He received his 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia: 1772–1832,” written in 2013.

“When I won the Pulitzer Prize, it was an absolute wonderful thing and all of a sudden, it became overwhelming with the media attention,” he said. “I would be interviewing with the New York Times and then, the media in San Diego was calling. They never wanted to talk to me before, so it was just surreal. I don’t think I’ve changed. I’m still the boy from Maine; it’s the book that won the prize.”

Taylor has written nine books on early American history.

Alta junior Morgan Hales read his 2016 book, “American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804.”

“Anyone could read his book — it’s easy and enjoyable and it made me laugh,” she said, adding that women fought the idea to marry and lose their freedom, but ended up getting married anyway. 

Classmate Lydia Stueber learned from Taylor’s research that “Virginia slaves escaped to British ships during the War of 1812 and that adds another perspective I didn’t have.” 

During a discussion with students, Taylor was asked who was his favorite person in history. First, he pointed to his tie, and then revealed the image of the first U.S. president on his socks.

“I like George Washington,” he said. “He’s a guy who tended to work really, really hard and made the most of his talents. He knew his limits. He didn’t see eye-to-eye with (Alexander) Hamilton and Jefferson, but he knew how to work with them. He was the one guy who could hold together the country. Without him, who knows what would have happened.”