Title Reviewed:
1816: America Rising

Author Reviewed:
C. Edward Skeen

John Lauritz Larson


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 101, Issue 2, pp 186-188

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

1816 America Rising, By C. Edward Skeen, (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003. Pp. xvi, 299. Illustrations, map, notes, bibliographical essay, index. $35.00.)

Sometimes a period of time seems to focus events, trends, and meanings in such a way that it defines an era, casts a deep shadow, or fixes the terms of collective experience for a generation. In living memory, December 7,1941, the year 1968, and September 11, 2001, stand out as examples of such focusing. Historians of the early American republic have recently been drawn to similar red-letter periods: Andrew Burstein in Americas Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered Fifty Years of Independence (2002) and Louis R Masur in 1831: Year of Eclipse (2001). In 1990 Kenneth Stampp published America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, an events-driven look at an action-packed year that virtually guaranteed the coming of the American Civil War. In 1943 Bernard De Voto published what is still my personal favorite, Year of Decision, 1846, a sprawling epic, the print equivalent of a four-hour cinematic extravaganza, that brought into brilliant perspective a number of easily overlooked events converging on the Polk administration (itself easily overlooked) that truly redefined America.

Now comes C. Edward Skeen with 1816: America Rising. Never one to indulge his own ego, Skeen wisely acknowledges the probability (proved out by this reviewer) of being compared to other one-year studies, protests (correctly) that his work began long before the two most recent examples of the genre, and takes steps (also correctly) to disabuse the reader who might think that he wants to claim for 1816 anything like the panoramic impact of De Voto's Wagnerian drama. But 1816: America Rising nevertheless brings together in one convenient account a remarkable convergence of events, trends, and surprises that amply reward the attention given them by the author (and readers) of this nifty volume.

Specialists know that 1816 found a place in living memories (at least above the 35th parallel) as the "year without a summer." Skeen reviews reports of hard frost in June as far south as Steubenville, Ohio, and of the first frost of the new winter on August 29 in Richmond, Virginia.

Add to this freakish weather volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, sun spots, and eclipses of the sun and the moon, and some people cast their minds on Biblical end times. This year seemed to people at the time to mark a turning point-perhaps the turning point-in American history, and even human history.

Following this dramatic setup, Skeen reviews in clear, readable prose the American situation at the close of the War of 1812 with special attention to political issues that exercised "men of affairs"-and have exercised most historians since. The twists and turns of the Fourteenth Congress are lovingly displayed in four chapters that highlight the tariff and bank controversies, the horrible Compensation Act, and the ever-puzzling dilemma of internal improvements. Stepping away from congressional debates, Skeen examines July 4th celebrations as national ritual that was taking on recognizable liturgical form. One chapter focuses on national defense and the much-needed reform of militias and the national army, another on state-level problems that forced Supreme Court decisions with national implications. Finally, the birth of sentimental and humanitarian movements receives a nice overview in two chapters that track, among other things, the founding of new prisons, Bible societies, peace movements, and a national society dedicated to the emancipation and removal of African American slaves which resulted in the creation of Liberia.

Specialists may find this story all too familiar, but other readers will discover a delightful rendering of at least some of what worried the American people at the dawn of the nation's second generation. Adequate notes and a bibliographic essay will guide interested readers further into the literature. Subscribers to the Indiana Magazine of History are quite likely to find 1816: America Rising worth their time and attention.

JOHN LAURITZ LARSON teaches history at Purdue University and is author of Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States (2001).

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.