[To celebrate Leap Day, this week I’ll be American Studying some particularly interesting leap years. This is the first in the series.]
Three revolutionary moments and the mid-19th century trends they can help us recognize and analyze.
1848 is internationally famous for its numerous European revolutions, which helped transform multiple nations and the arc of world history in general. Yet across the Atlantic, America witnessed its own revolutionary 1848 moments, events that would transform our own national histories and futures. The first happened in January at a California saw-mill belonging to one John Sutter; Sutter discovered gold on his property, launching the gold rush that would bring hundreds of thousands of new settlers into the state and region over the next decade. Less than a month later, on February 2nd, the US and Mexico finalized the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and Western land became that much more available and attractive for such migrations.
Across the continent, the year’s most revolutionary East Coast event was more planned and much less chaotic, but certainly just as striking of a turning point. In July, a handful of dedicated women’s rights activists, among them Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, for what became the first official Women’s Rights Convention in American history. The attendees not only expressed and furthered their communal commitment to the cause, but drafted a document, the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, that echoed yet significant revised the Declaration of Independence in order to advance their arguments in favor of women’s equality. In November, Samuel Gregory would open the New England Female Medical College in Boston, exemplifying the era’s practical and social advancements for women as a result of these revolutionary efforts.
Perhaps the year’s most subtle revolutionary moment likewise occurred in November, on two fronts. That year’s presidential election, in which the Whig Zachary Taylor defeated the Democrat Lewis Cass, was the first in which all 30 states voted on the same day; moreover, the election results were shared and carried by a group of five major newspapers who had constituted themselves into a new organization, the Harbor News Association—or, colloquially but soon officially, the Associated Press. American politics, journalism, and society were being increasingly linked into an interconnected national entity—and, as the year’s foundings of the Boston Public Library (the nation’s first free municipal library) and the state public universities of Mississippi and Wisconsin-Madison indicated, that nation’s literate and engaged population was concurrently increasing.
Next leap year tomorrow,
PS. Any particularly rich or interesting years you’d highlight?
2/27 Memory Day nominees: A tie between John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, regionalist, realist, and travel writer whose best novel remains one of the most significant works in American literary history; and N. Scott Momaday, the Kiowa American novelist, poet, and scholar whose Pulitzer-winning debut novel helped usher in a powerful new era in Native American literature.
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