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1 6 Historically Speaking · May/June 2004 1816: AYear of Transition C. Edward Skeen Traditionally, at the close ofeveryyear the media reviews the events of the past year and notes their significance —a form of"instant history." Contemporaries , however, are not necessarily good judges ofthe lasting consequences of developments so close to their experience. Often the importance ofconnections between little noticed occurrences becomes evident only when seen from a distant period. Similarly, historians trained to see sweeping developments from the myriad details that cover a decade or a centurymayjustas easilymiss the historical relevance of a small occurrence. Obviously, a great deal of"event" historyhas beenwritten encompassing a briefperiod, e.g., an election, a war, or even a battle, but events treated in thematic isolation tend to miss importantclues thatmayderive anewcollective meaning by focusing on a single year. A close study of that year (and not the event itself) mayreveal valuable information about the context in which an event occurred. Oneyearhistories offeryetanotherperspective and a differentwayto examine closelythe synergy ofevents thatmake a period ofhistoryunique. Books about a single year are nothing new; Bernard De Voto's work on 1846 comes to mind. Recently, many historians have begun to focus a microscope on a singleyear. Books byAndrew Burstein (1826) and Louis Masur (1831) are two examples.1 Mystudyof the year 1816 adds to that list of works.2 Admittedly, a case could be made that every yearis unique and thatthe events ofoneyear intertwine with strands from the past to weave the fabric of the future. It is obvious that some years are more unique than others , such as 1776 (Revolution), 1787 (Constitution ), 1861 (CivilWar), and so forth, that stand out in American memory because they mark developments that clearly have had a profound influence on the future course of American history. On the other hand, there are years that at first glance may not seem significant, but may have witnessed events thatin retrospect emerge as a significant turning point or a transition between two eras of American history. There are many ways to approach the studyofayear. Andrew Burstein, for example, used 1826 as a touchstone, relatingbiographically the contributions ofunique individuals leading up to and after the year under study. LouisMasur, on the otherhand, chose to use broad thematic chapters to relate major movements evolving during 1831. My approach was to focus as closely as possible on the events of 1816 topically. Like Masur, I also tried to show how these events influenced future developments. As historians we enjoy the luxury that contemporaries ofthat time did not—the ability to see how things turned out and to be able to assess how Americans of that day advanced the American republic and its people. It might be asked why a year like 1816 would be chosen for a detailed study. A first impression suggests that 1816 could be labeled "A Year When Nothing Happened." This view arises, no doubt, from historians' dreadful neglect ofthe entire period between 1815 and 1825. These years, frequently labeled as the "Era of Good Feelings," are often given lightand dismissive treatmentas thewriters of historytextbooks seeminglyrush to getto the more interesting post-1825Jacksonian period. In truth, a lot happened in 1816. For example , 1816 was a critical year for making the decision to build the greatErie Canal. Astudy of the decision-making process is important for an understanding of the hopes and fears ofNew Yorkers as they considered this project . From the perspective ofAmericans ofthat time it was a courageous step, fraught with great risk. From our perspective, itwas a wise and far-sightedventure thatwas successful far beyond their fondest hopes. Interestingly, the mostspectacular events of 1816 were things that most intrigued contemporaries of that time, but in the final analysiswere relativelyinconsequential. The event that elicited the most comment from Americans in 1816 was the bizarre weather, known today as "The Year Without a Summer ." It snowed in New England in every month of that summer. Frost reached as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Indiana (that can be documented) in every month that summer. It was also extremely dry, and the combined effects ofdrought and crop-killing frosts naturally concerned not only farmers butAmericans in everywalk...


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