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“The Year without Summer” (1816): When Republicans Recognized Climate Change Existed (SHEAR CONFERENCE)

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) held its annual conference in New Haven from July 21-24. I was only able to attend the weekend sessions on the last two days. Below is my summary and comments on the second session I attended on Saturday, July 23.

“The Year without Summer” (1816) and Climate Change: Perspectives on the New Climate History from the Early Republic

Tambora

Mount Tambora Caldera, Sumbawa, Indonesia

(Jialiang Gao/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sherry Johnson, Florida International University

Johnson spoke as a Latin American historian. Her initial investigation sought to uncover connections between the United States and the Caribbean involving the summer of 1816. She called that effort Plan A and found no documentation to support her first hypothesis. When hurricanes had increased in the 1770s, there were food shortages in the Caribbean. As a result, the Spanish authorities turned to Philadelphia to trade for food. The environment forced Spain to make this effort and she wondered about the political impact at that time. However, she found no evidence of crisis in food production in 1816 contra to the Plan B hypothesis. Turning to Plan C, she hypothesized that some areas reaped benefits from crises elsewhere. The Year without Summer ended up being a null event for the Caribbean as it was still able to obtain the food needed from the United States.

Sam White, Ohio State University

White spoke as an environmental historian. He began with the observation that climate history has not generated much traction yet. In the United States, geography departments carry less prestige than they do elsewhere in the world. The focus here tends to be on what people have done to the environment, more reflective of American values. The emphasis here is on human agency rather than on the environment in its own right. The wilderness legacy in American culture looms large in academic studies.

In addition to these more general comments, White did speak on a more technical basis on the environmental issues related to the Year without Summer but it would be inappropriate of me to comment on that aspect of his presentation. It was his general observations that he may have hoped would have a more volcanic impact on the scholarship paradigm. Whether his conference eruption will generate such a seismic shock remains to be seen.

Sean Munger, University of Oregon

Munger examined the more traditional elements one associates with historical scholarship – what effect did the wild weather have on the economy, psychology, and religion of America. He averred that people applied the science of astronomy as they it knew to bring order to the chaos that they experienced. The summer had a universal [meaning global] dimension to it in addition to the local impact that one could detect with one’s own senses.  He posited a dual-layered environmental view in response. At the local level, people dealt with the immediate issues of home, farm, and harvest. At the cosmic level, people looked skyward for answers to explain what was happening on earth. Astrology, theology, and science all were brought to bear.

As a result of the volcanic dust suspended in the air following the volcanic eruption, people gained a different view of the sun than in normal times. Sun spots became more visible. It wasn’t that the sunspots were a new phenomenon or that they had increased in number, but that people could see more of them now. One consequence was the newspaper coverage incorrectly attributing the weather change to the increased sunspots. Naturally, sooner or later, such cosmic changes led to the prediction that the world was coming to an end. Sure enough on July 8, 1816, an “astronomer” prophesized precisely such an event. I wondered if William Miller had been aware of such prophecies and if they contributed to his own more scientific calculation of when the world would come to an end.

John Brooke, Ohio State University (Presiding)

Brooke mentioned the comparatively recent explorations by Van Humboldt in South America and their impact on the grappling with the events of 1816. Through what theological framework could people make sense of what was happening? He reminded us that the War of 1812 had recently concluded and also had impacted American life.

Alan Taylor, University of Virginia (Commentator)

Taylor reiterated the points made about historians needing to place closer attention to climate in their studies, but he concluded that the Year without Summer was not a pivotal event in American history. There was a drive to systemize thinking at that time even if it is not convincing to us. People then [as now] seek to discern patterns to explain the world they are experiencing. Today, we are not as quick to attribute climate as an independent entity willfully impacting human life. Taylor recognized the internal discussion within the discipline on landscape acting on human history versus human agency. The latter preference is consistent with the American narrative of the power of people over nature.

I have a note that political events of the War of 1812 and post-Waterloo trumped the concern over climate change but I am not sure how much of that derived from Alan’s comments, my own thoughts, or both.

In the Q&A, the topic was raised of the challenge to integrate the information presented in the session to the traditional American narrative of human agency.

In looking back on this session and reading my notes, it occurs to me that the session, or at least the notes I took, may have veered off its original intention. I don’t know what was submitted to SHEAR [shouldn’t abstracts and session descriptions be posted on the SHEAR website?]. The initial paper by Johnson illustrated an historian at work at her craft, proposing an hypothesis, testing it, and then going back to the drawing board to try again.  But the tenor of the presentations, particularly what was of interest to me, addressed larger issues which go beyond the specific event of 1816. In hindsight it seems that some of the issues raised warrant their own sessions or discussions. Left unmentioned in the presentations was the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. How could any attempt to impose a pattern on the events in nature omit such a recent disturbance or combine both of them? These same years marked Methodism’s arrival as the leading religion in America. How did they interpret these events? In any event, the session stimulated additional thinking on my part so in that sense it was a successful one.

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