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Darkness Visible - 1831 Year of the Eclipse

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Darkness Visible - 1831 Year of Eclipse

A Book Review by David Traxel


[1] Certain years -- 1492, 1776, 1898, 1914 are examples -- mark turning points in history. Louis P. Masur skillfully presents the case for 1831 to be recognized as another 12-month period when the course of American society was changed forever. An eclipse that took place in February of that year provides Masur with a metaphor that links some of the ominous though disparate events. As one contemporary newspaper noted, in many citizens this shading of the sun awakened ''a kind of vague fear, of impending danger -- a prophetic presentiment of some approaching catastrophe.''


[2] Nat Turner of Virginia, however, had a liberating vision inspired by the celestial event: ''I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened -- the thunder rolled in the heavens, and blood flowed in streams.'' In August he led a band of slaves in a bloody but futile revolt against their masters. This all too earthly event filled white people with their own dire prophecies, and by the end of the year the Virginia Legislature was debating the future of slavery, a future that, given its economic importance, was never really in immediate doubt.


[3] Farther north, a Yankee, though he did not know Nat Turner, was also doing what he could to end the evil of slavery. January saw the appearance of William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, The Liberator, which throughout the decades before the Civil War would serve as the rallying voice of the abolitionist movement. ''I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice,'' Garrison promised. ''On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation. No! No! . . . I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.''


[4] Other great moral issues were being confronted. Black Hawk's band of Sauk Indians tried to return to their ancestral lands in Illinois but were crushed during a short campaign in which Abraham Lincoln was a volunteer, though he saw no action. In the South, the State of Georgia was prompting the federal government to expel the Cherokees, one of the ''civilized'' tribes that had adopted white ways of life but who saw themselves as an independent nation. The Indian Removal Act was eagerly signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830, and the tribe took its case to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the Cherokees in 1831. A more favorable decision was made by the justices the following year, but Jackson ignored it. The Trail of Tears ensued in 1838 as thousands of Cherokees were forced to move west.


[5] One of Jackson's reasons for supporting Georgia, aside from his own anti-Indian prejudice, was that he needed that state's help against South Carolina, which was claiming the right to nullify any federal law it disapproved of, in this case the protective tariff. Here was indeed an ominous development that caused men like former President John Quincy Adams, in his Fourth of July oration, to warn that the union formed by the founders might not survive.


[6] Many thought that the second Great Awakening might provide the glue to hold such a fractious society together. Religion, one evangelical minister argued, could counter the forces of disunity caused by ''our vast extent of territory, our numerous and increasing population . . . diversity of local interests, the power of selfishness and the fury of sectional jealousy and hate.'' Charles Grandison Finney, who gave up a career in law to become a charismatic itinerant preacher, sparked the beginnings of the revival movement in 1826, and it reached its fiery peak in 1831 when over a hundred thousand new members joined Protestant churches.


[7] Masur, who teaches history at the City University of New York, has organized ''1831'' by four thematic chapters: slavery and abolition, religion and politics, state and nation, machines and nature. Missing are the details of everyday life and popular culture. There is little on music, theater or literature, and only a bit about art. He does an excellent job of dealing with the large subjects and with a wide range of characters like Finney, Jackson, John C. Calhoun and Alexis de Tocqueville, bringing out their various oddities, nobilities, brilliance or lack of shine, their greed and courage. Masur has a sure eye for the lively and perceptive quotation: Americans, already so restless and in love with technology that they were being called the ''locomotive people,'' would soon, one observer predicted, ''sleep one night in Penobscot, the next in Cincinnati, the third in Charleston, the fourth in Philadelphia and the fifth in a remote corner of Lake Winnipeg!'' An English visitor claimed that he had never heard Americans converse ''without the word 'dollar' being pronounced between them.'' And Gustave Beaumont, who accompanied Tocqueville, declared after they had visited a wilderness under assault by pioneers, ''There is . . . in America a general feeling of hatred against trees.''


[8] Something might have been gained by running these major themes side by side through the year, so that, to take one example, the complexity of the Cherokees' situation would be fully developed. We hear nothing about their religious beliefs, though it is noted that Protestant missionaries were working on their behalf. The large number of slaves they held is barely mentioned, yet 30 years later Cherokees would fight on the side of the Confederacy, supporting the very people who expelled them. We don't hear their voices or learn much about the fierce debates that took place in the tribe as they decided how to respond to being forced from their ancestral land, so we end up with the sense that they were only acted upon.


[9] About the watershed aspect of 1831, I remain unconvinced. The slavery and tariff nullification issues were divisive and full of portents of ''approaching catastrophe,'' but a number of years carried such grave messages, periods just as rich with mixtures of greed, moral uplift and disappointment. However, there are also other reasons to write about a year even if it does not mark a major change in the flow of history. A study of 1831 helps us understand events that happened both before and after, gives insight into the character of the United States and, also important, entertains with the stories it provides. This is especially true when the study is as thoroughly researched and well written as this one.


Source Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/11/books/darkness-visible.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share


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