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 republicand lead the nation to secession and civil war. This is an innovative and challenging interpretation of a key moment in antibellum America.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
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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 dangera 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 roostto count the stars and tell them by their names; in short, to see something that they might talk about now and hereaftersomething 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 matterthey talk of a convention. Truth to say, expectations were scarcely realized. On such occasions, people now-a-day show a shockingly morbid appetitethey 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