Monday, February 24, 2020
February 24, 2020: Leap Years: 1816
[In honor of this once-in-four-years phenomenon, I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy a few interesting leap years from American history.]
On significant global, cross-cultural, and national trends within a single year.
You would think that a catastrophic historic phenomenon wherein the eruption of a volcano caused a drastic shift in global temperatures for an entire year would be at least somewhat well known. But speaking for myself, I only learned about the “Year without a Summer”—in which the record-breaking 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora caused severe climate change and freezing temperatures throughout 1816, leading to the even more evocative nickname “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”—just over a year ago, while researching this post on the Panic of 1819. But whether we remember it now or not, this global catastrophe had drastic effects throughout the world in 1816, including a number of important ones in the United States (along with the arc that culminated in the aforementioned 1819 panic): from the failure of corn crops throughout New England to the mass migrations to the Midwest that led to statehood for Indiana (in 1816) and Illinois (in 1818) to the eventual founding of the Mormon Church (as Joseph Smith’s family were one of countless residents who left Vermont farms during this year, in their case moving to the community of Palmyra, NY that would be so foundational in his personal and spiritual journey).
It’s hard to imagine that any other 1816 story could be as significant as that global and catastrophic one, but of course the year featured many other American events, including ones that likewise influenced ongoing histories and trends. A number of them reflected the complicated, evolving Early Republic relationship between the US government and Native American nations. For the first few decades after the Constitution, the federal government dealt with native nations in individual and distinct ways, treating them as the unique communities they were, and 1816 saw an exemplary (if as ever fraught) such moment: the August signing of the Treaty of St. Louis between the US government and the nations within the Three Fires Confederacy (the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi). Yet another 1816 treaty foreshadowed the drastic and tragic change in these US-native relationships: on March 22 the federal government signed a treaty with the Cherokee, agreeing to return land that had been illegally seized as part of an 1814 conflict between the US and the Creek nation; but General Andrew Jackson, who had been involved in that 1814 war, refused to honor the treaty, a blatant step toward his eventual, exclusionary presidential policy of Indian Removal.
Jackson would not be elected president until 1828, but 1816 saw its own influential presidential election (as has every American Leap Year since 1788). In that contest, James Monroe, who had been serving as Secretary of State in the administration of his fellow Virginian founder James Madison, received the Democratic-Republican nomination and handily bested the Federalist nominee, New York Senator (and also a Constitution signer) Rufus King. The size of Monroe’s victory was due in part to a splintering and disappearing Federalist Party: King would be the party’s last presidential nominee, and for the next few years the US had only one national political party, leading to the nickname “The Era of Good Feelings.” As I wrote in that hyperlinked post, there were of course tensions and divisions beneath that seeming unity, and many of them would coalesce ahead of Jackson’s 1828 election. Yet for at least a decade, the United States became a one-party system, another striking legacy of this important Leap Year.
Next leap year studying tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this year or other leap years that stand out to you?