Louis Masur’s 1831: Year of Eclipse discusses several key events in a pivotal year in American history, using that year’s much-vaunted but disappointing solar eclipse to frame them. While the eclipse is clearly the least important event, its inclusion illustrates the disparities between contemporary ideas of important events and those that have enduring effects on history.
Masur chose the year 1831 because it saw important events and trends emerge that would, within a few decades, deeply and radically transform the United States: the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia; the emergence of radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his newspaper, The Liberator; the spread of utopian Protestantism throughout the American hinterland, including the Oneida community and the Mormons; the advent of railroads, which helped transform the nation into an industrial giant; and Andrew Jackson’s controversial presidency, which included the forced removal of Native Americans from the Southeast.
(It also included visits by several foreigners, among them Alexis de Tocqueville, whose keen observations on antebellum America are still widely cited. ) Later in the nineteenth century, each event had repercussions for the nation as a whole – the rise of abolitionism, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars – but, when they occurred, not all attracted the same attention as the eclipse. The eclipse on 12 February 1831 received considerable attention in the weeks before it occurred.
Masur notes, some viewed the event with fear and dread, while others used the occasion to deliver pointed comments on American society’s condition; he quotes one source: “If we would look for the signs of the displeasure of God toward a nation, we can see them, not in eclipses, but in national sins and depravity of morals. ” Of 1831’s important events, two stand out as a related pair – the Nat Turner rebellion and the advent of Garrison and The Liberator, because they illustrated the tensions and divisions that eventually brought the Civil War and slavery’s end, both the century’s most important legacies.
The former, the nation’s largest and bloodiest slave uprising, occurred six months after the eclipse in rural Virginia and saw a literate slave preacher lead a band of fugitive slaves on a bloody rampage against their masters. Quoting a primary source, Masur comments that, with this event, “Virginians knew they could ‘never be again feel safe, never again be happy’” – at least not as slaveholders.
The revolt caused a national clamor at the time and reminded many Americans that slavery was an inhumane institution, in which masters were seldom as kind or benevolent as they imagined and where slaves were never content with their lot. It was also a precursor of the massive violence that eliminating slavery would require. Furthermore, as Masur suggests, it underscored “an unresolvable tension at the core of American culture: whatever appearances might suggest, reality would prove otherwise. ”
Nearly as important, and closely related in retrospect, is Garrison’s founding of The Liberator, an uncompromising abolitionist newspaper that reflected its creator’s unyielding, confrontational style. Refusing to placate or gently reason with the South on the subject of slavery, Garrison was then considered an eccentric on the fringe; indeed, abolitionism was still considered an extreme idea, even among Garrison’s fellow Northerners, though it ultimately prevailed. Says Masur, “The problem, thought most Southerners and Northerners, was a small but influential group of reformist demagogues .
. . [who] fomented servile resurrection. ” Perhaps the least important event is the eclipse itself, which was decidedly underwhelming and by no means the apocalyptic event some imagined; as one contemporary observer claimed, “The darkness was that of a thunder gust. ” However, one suspects that Masur used the event as a sort of straw man, illustrating how contemporary events that many consider noteworthy often prove otherwise in the long historical view and lose their importance over time.
It may also be a convenient symbol for the impending changes that, in 1831, seemed less important than they would prove in hindsight (except for Turner’s rebellion). If one were to choose the least important events among these, though, one may choose the foreigners’ visits, since they did not themselves directly influence the direction America would take for the rest of the nineteenth century.
Though Britons James Boardman and Godfrey Vigne and Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville all recorded and published their insights for posterity, their impact would occur much later. Even then, though, their work was hardly unimportant in American history, particularly that of de Tocqueville, who commented that slavery was the United States’ chief problem – which it had not yet begun to address (but would, within a generation, and the nation would emerge from the great conflict indelibly changed).
In 1831, though, their presence was likely almost invisible compared to the other phenomena Masur describes. Also, one might consider the anti-Masonic movement unimportant, since few today are familiar with it, though even that had a lasting legacy by forming part of the political basis for what became the Republican Party, which eventually included radical abolitionists and waged the final battles against slavery.
1831: Year of Eclipse discusses a series of events and trends that emerged that year but whose impact was not yet known. Masur’s final sentence, which returns to the eclipse, speaks just as well for 1831 as a whole: “The day seemed mysterious, pregnant with meaning; its hues would linger for a long time to come.
Masur, Louis P. 1831: Year of Eclipse. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.