1831: Year of Eclipse by Louis P. Masur | Paperback | Barnes & Noble
1831: Year of Eclipse

1831: Year of Eclipse

by Louis P. Masur

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1776, 1861, 1929. Any high-school student should know what these years meant to American history. But wars and economic disasters are not our only pivotal events, and other years have, in a quieter way, swayed the course of our nation. 1831 was one of them, and in this striking new work, Louis Masur shows us exactly how.

The year began with a solar eclipse, for


1776, 1861, 1929. Any high-school student should know what these years meant to American history. But wars and economic disasters are not our only pivotal events, and other years have, in a quieter way, swayed the course of our nation. 1831 was one of them, and in this striking new work, Louis Masur shows us exactly how.

The year began with a solar eclipse, for many an omen of mighty changes -- and for once, such predictions held true. Nat Turner's rebellion soon followed, then ever-more violent congressional arguments over slavery and tarrifs. Religious revivalism swept the North, and important observers (including Tocqueville) traveled the land, forming the opinions that would shape the world's view of America for generations to come. New technologies, meanwhile, were dramatically changing Americans' relationship with the land, and Andrew Jackson's harsh policies toward the Cherokee erased most Indians' last hopes of autonomy. As Masur's analysis makes clear, by 1831 it was becoming all too certain that political rancor, the struggle over slavery, the pursuit of individualism, and technological development might eclipse the glorious potential of the early republic--and lead the nation to secession and civil war. This is an innovative and challenging interpretation of a key moment in antibellum America.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“It was the year of Nat Turner's slave rebellion, of the launching of Garrison's Liberator, of Tocqueville's visit to the United States, of Cyrus McCormick's invention of the mechanical reaper, and of many other pivotal events. Annus mirabilis, 1831 became the hinge of fate for the future of America, both good and ill. Louis Masur has captured the flavor of this crucial year in this captivating book.” —James M. McPherson

“Louis Masur has set himself up in a propitious perch astride the end of republican America and the ascendance of that messier thing called democracy. It is as if Alexis de Tocqueville returned and, with all the advantages of historical hindsight, rewrote his classic account of modern America's birth.” —Joseph J. Ellis

“Not since Bernard De Voto's Year of Decision, 1846, published almost sixty years ago, have we had such a creative, well-intergrated work about a pivotal and defining moment in the nation's history. 1831 is filled with fresh and little-known information skillfully woven into a more familiar and highly meaningful narrative.” —Michael Kammen

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
On February 12, 1831, a full eclipse of the sun darkened America's skies. Newspapers nationwide heralded its arrival, and commentators congratulated themselves that the "idle fears and gloomy forebodings"--the past superstitions attached to such events--had been replaced by "pleasing admiration" of the wonders of nature and society's progress in scientific understanding. However, says Masur (Rites of Execution), professor of history at the City University of New York, what unfolded in 1831 belies this chauvinistic claim of America's advancement. Rather, he builds a case that America's future faced inevitable upheaval directly linked to the failure of the founders to resolve two fundamental conflicts: the contradiction between a country founded on the "inalienable rights of man" embracing the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery, and the tension between a federal government intent on preserving the Union and the states' claims of uncontestable sovereignty. Masur draws upon an exceptionally rich array of voices, quoting generously from figures as divergent as slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Andrew Jackson. Masur vividly chronicles the plight of the Cherokee, who despite their willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government, were forced from their homeland and marched west on the infamous Trail of Tears. Tocqueville traveled to the U.S. in 1831, prompting him to write Democracy in America, and as Masur notes, Tocqueville's prescient observations illuminated not only the intractable problems of slavery and race in America but also the extraordinary uniqueness and energy of America's citizens. Masur's accessible and intriguing work, which appeals to a wide and diverse audience interested in American history, raises the year 1831, not necessarily one that stands out in most Americans' minds, above insignificance. Illus. not seen by PW. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Masur (history, CUNY) has done a superb job of creating a richly textured account of a portentous year in American history: 1831 marked the year that the Southern oligarchy quit discussing the possible abolition of slavery and William Lloyd Garrison began his strident demand for abolition of the peculiar institution. The Nullification Crisis and the Indian Removal Act further exacerbated sectional differences. North-South fissures of the body politic also found expression in the battles between the National Republicans and the Democrats. Yet Union sentiment remained strong, and all Americans seemed to share a common drive toward material prosperity. Sadly, sectionalism eventually eclipsed national commonalties and thus fostered the fraternal bloodbath that erupted 30 years later. It is the dichotomy between consensus and conflict that Masur captures through the skillful use of memoirs, letters, diaries, newspapers, and first-person accounts. This is a work of traditional history: a good story grounded in primary sources. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A history of one year in the United States. In 1831 the republic was going through a rather difficult adolescence. A remnant of the old guard of founders and framers watched as a new generation of leaders took charge of the nation (and took aim at each other). Even as the country expanded and thrived under technological advances in transport and agriculture, cracks in the democratic ideal kept surfacing, widening into fissures that threatened to dissolve the Union. Nat Turner's quixotic rebellion and the publication of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator raised the problem of slavery to a new level of public consciousness; the expulsion of the Cherokee from Georgia and the defeat of Black Hawk and the Sauk in Illinois belied the democratic system's claim to fairness and benevolence; the Jackson administration was riven by the issue of states' rights; and new evangelical sects emphasizing the moral will of the individual over divine directives (and new labor movements stressing the tensions between the powerful elite and the worker) undermined habits and ideas on which the national identity had appeared to depend. Visiting observers from the Old World (de Tocqueville, Frances Trollope) were fascinated, appalled, and bemused by what they saw. Eschewing a fully expounded argument, Masur (History/CUNY) arranges his slices of historical narrative thematically, the better to illustrate the moral, political, economic, and cultural forces at work in the moment. For the most part the strategy works, but some topics need more background explanation (the connection between the policy issues that divided the Jackson administration and the private scandal that promptedsomany resignations from his cabinet is not clear), while others are sometimes forced into juxtapositions that don't really make sense (from Audubon's vision to the cholera epidemic). Despite the aptness of his idea and the economy of his style, the author has bitten off just a little more than his 200 pages can chew. An intelligent and imaginative historical essay with a few pieces missing.. . . McLean, Adrienne L.McLean, Adrienne L. & David A. Cook–Eds.HEADLINE HOLLYWOOD: A Century of Film Scandal Ed. by David A. Cook Rutgers Univ. (320 pp.) paper Feb. 2001

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.23(h) x 0.74(d)

Read an Excerpt





Everyone knew it was coming. "THE GREAT ECLIPSE OF 1831 will be one of the most remarkable that will again be witnessed in the United States for a long course of years," alerted Ash's Pocket Almanac. One editor reported that the February 12 eclipse would even surpass historic occasions when "the darkness was such that domestic fowls retired to roost" and "it appeared as if the moon rode unsteadily in her orbit, and the earth seemed to tremble on its axis."1

On the day of the eclipse, from New England through the South, Americans looked to the heavens. One diarist saw "men, women and children ... in all directions, with a piece of smoked glass, and eyes turn'd upward." The Boston Evening Gazette reported that "this part of the world has been all anxiety ... to witness the solar eclipse ... . Business was suspended and thousands of persons were looking at the phenomena with intense curiosity." "Every person in the city," noted the Richmond Enquirer, "was star gazing, from bleary-eyed old age to the most bright-eyed infancy."2

Unlike previous celestial events, thought some commentators, the eclipse of 1831 would not produce superstitious dread that the world would end. "Idle fears and gloomy forebodings of evil formerly raised by the appearance of phenomena caused by the regular operation of natural laws," one writer claimed, "have yielded to pleasing admiration; a change which the march of science and general diffusion of knowledge have largely contributed to effect." Another writer mocked the notion that eclipses were "signs or forerunners of great calamities." Eclipses, he thought, "necessarily result from the established laws of the planetary revolution, and take place in exact conformity with those laws ... . Those who entertain the opinion that eclipses of the sun are tokens of the Divine displeasure can produce no warrant from scripturefor their irrational belief. If we would look for the signs of the displeasure of God towards a nation, we can see them, not in eclipses, but in national sins and depravity of morals."3

Rational explanations of atmospheric events, however, offered little solace to most Americans. In many, "a kind of vague fear, of impending danger—a prophetic presentiment of some approaching catastrophe"—was awakened, and "the reasonings of astronomy, or the veritable deductions of mathematical forecast," did little to diminish the anxiety. One correspondent reported that an "old shoe-black accosted a person in front of our office, the day previous to the eclipse, and asked him if he was not afraid. For, said he, with tears in his eyes, the world is to be destroyed to-morrow; the sun and moon are to meet ... and a great earthquake was to swallow us all!—Others said the sun and the earth would come in contact, and the latter would be consumed. Others again, were seen wending their ways to their friends and relations, covered with gloom and sadness; saying that they intended to die with them!" The day after the eclipse, preachers employed Luke 21:25 as the text for their sermons: "there shall be signs in the sun." "In strict propriety of language," one minister observed, "it is not the sun that is eclipsed. Not the slightest shadow is cast upon the least portion of his broad disk. His beams are shot forth precisely the same. It is over us only that the momentary darkness is spread, and it is truly the earth that is eclipsed."4

The spectacle, however, proved anticlimactic. "The darkness being less visible than generally expected," the heaven-gazers felt "bamboozled." "At the moment of greatest obscuration," reported one paper, "a foolish feeling of disappointment was generally prevalent and this was expressed by many in such terms as they might have used after having been taken in by the quacking advertisement of an exhibitor of fireworks or phantasmagoria. It was not half as dark as they expected." "The darkness was that of a thunder gust," snorted one observer: "The light of the sun was sickly, but shadows were very perceptible." "The multitude have been sadly disappointed," reported one editor. "They looked for darkness and the shades of light; they expected to drink inhorrors, and feel the power of superstition without its terrors or apprehensions; they expected to work by candlelight, see cows come home, and poultry go ultimately to roost—to count the stars and tell them by their names; in short, to see something that they might talk about now and hereafter—something to tell their children and grandchildren."5

With the anticipation more disturbing than the event, some sought to cast blame. Almanac makers and newspaper editors were chastised for their extravagant predictions of darkness and glowing descriptions of the wonders that would be seen. Some thought the astronomers deserved condemnation for offering elaborate calculations that fizzled. Others blamed regional temperaments for the heightened expectations. "Our Yankee proneness to exaggeration," thought the Boston Patriot, "was manifested in a ludicrous manner on the occasion of the late eclipse." Southerners agreed: "Our eastern brethren are, as usual, up in arms about the matter—they talk of a convention. Truth to say, expectations were scarcely realized. On such occasions, people now-a-day show a shockingly morbid appetite—they look for portentous signs, for ghastly gleanings of fiery comets, the rushing up, with dire intimations of the 'northern lights,' and expect to see 'clouds of dark blood to blot the sun's broad light, / And angry meteors shroud the world in night.'"6

However much the eclipse disappointed, it served as metaphor and omen. Edward Everett, politician from Massachusetts, reported that "a motion was made in the House of Representatives to adjourn over till Monday in consequence of the darkness which was to prevail." The motion did not pass, and Everett quipped, "After sitting so frequently when there is darkness inside the House, it would be idle I think to fly before a little darkness on the face of the heavens." The United States Gazette, which feverishly opposed the re-election of President Andrew Jackson, joked that "the solar eclipse has not attracted as much attention here, as the late curious obscuration of one of the smaller stars in the constellation, Jupiter Jackson." With greater sobriety, the editor of the Philadelphia Gazette observed that "the affairs of the Eastern hemisphere ... have reached a thrilling and portentous crisis. An irresistiblespirit of reform seems burning with occult but mighty energy among the nations ... . An eclipse in Europe at the present time might be considered as an omen. In this country, where it has lately occurred, the sunshine of regulated freedom appears alone to rest."7

Unmoved by editorial, ministerial, astronomical, or political pronouncements and predictions, on the day of the eclipse some Philadelphians went ice-skating. The coldest winter in decades had frozen the Delaware River, and thousands of citizens chose to pass the day in recreation. The Saturday Bulletin reported, "It is probable that fifteen thousand persons were amusing themselves by sliding and skating on the river, while the numerous booths, or travelling dram-shops which were located at short distances apart, throughout the whole city front, were observed to do a brisk business in hot punch, smoked sausages, crackers, and ten-for-a-cent cigars. Sober citizens, whom we have observed never exceed a regular dog-trot, while walking our streets, were now capering around with the agility of a feather in a whirlwind."8

One artist drew the scene. On February 12, Edward William Clay set up his easel by the Delaware River and produced an image of citizens at play. Men of all classes slip and swirl, some into one another's arms, as they skate the day away. To the right, a rough-hewn citizen warms himself with a drink; a woman looks on contentedly. A black man, in stereotypical comic fashion, slides helplessly away, his hat lost. All is movement and motion, energy and action. But the sky is gray, the light is pale, and dusk is approaching.

Copyright © 2001 by Louis P. Masur

Meet the Author

Louis Masur, a professor of history at the City University of New York and the editor of Reviews in American History, is the author of Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865

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