A year in the life of America Villains just aren't what they used to be. Rarely do we read these days of people being assaulted to the accompaniment of such inflated locutions as this: "Now you damned, perjured rascal, we will inflict upon you the penalty of your violated obligations." The victim was a minister and his would-be assassin a man out to settle the minister's hash for renouncing his vows to Freemasonry. Fortunately, the minister survived the assault in 1831. His story, reported by Louis P. Masur, a professor of history at the City University of New York, in his 1831: Year of Eclipse, illustrates a couple of things about reading this history, and history in general.

The first, though lesser, is that one of the great delights of history is coming across captivating gems like this. There are many other fascinating nuggets in Masur's admirable work.

The second, more substantive, is that opposition to Masonry was a very big deal in 19th century American politics. The Anti-Masons, Masur writes, "became the first third party in American history and invented the presidential nominating convention." The actual threat that Masonry posed to the national life was almost if not entirely, nonexistent, but that of course was not the first or last time politicians built their careers upon a chimerical fear. This lesson is perhaps of even greater value in reading history. For a modern parallel we might imagine an Anti-Cult Party or Anti-Satan Party whipping up the masses to much ado about nothing.

The year 1831 acts as more of a vantage point than a rallying point for Masur's study. The full eclipse of the sun that occurred on February 12 had been widely heralded, and so was not the fright that some earlier eclipses had been. Though some, like Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, tried to see in it a metaphor or omen, as such it was pretty much damp squib.

But it was and is perfect for viewing the storms that were gathering over slavery, abolition, religion, tariffs, states' rights, nullification and a host of attendant issues. It was, for example, the year of the visit of Alexis de Tocqueville, the pre-eminent observer of America, who, like many other foreigners, saw civil war as inevitable. It was the year that a more caustic English observer, Frances Trollope, left the country, liking nothing and scorning in particular the "vehement expressions of insane or hypocritical zeal" offered by itinerant preachers for which another modern parallel might be the scarifying nutcases infesting the "paid programming" recesses of television.

Our observer, Masur, has the advantage of a longer view of some of the same phenomena the 19th century observers commented upon: Nat Turner's slave revolt, the Cherokee Trail of Tears, the battle over the Bank of the United States. Behind these and other events and issues is the question at the heart of everything: "whether the United States could survive as a nation." In examining these matters, Masur provides the reader another incidental, though not necessarily trivial, intellectual pleasure: savoring the hypocrisies and paradoxes accompanying the acts of history's major and minor players. Most have to do with slavery, because that was far and away the chief circumstance behind the question of the nation's survival. For example: � Though Virginia's white community lamented that white women had been killed in Turner's slave revolt, they gave thanks that at least they had not been raped.

� After the revolt, some Southerners saw a need to keep control through terror, thus giving the lie to the Southern doctrine that slavery was benign and the enslaved were loyal and contented.

� Not just Southerners, but Northern newspaper editors and Northerners in general were outraged by William Lloyd Garrison's radical abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Their fierce opposition only boosted the newspaper's circulation.

� South Carolinians, in particular, took a kind of sour pride in the doctrine of nullification, because it meant resistance to the power of the federal government to interfere with slavery. Not many were able to see that it also contributed to an atmosphere of lawlessness that could incite the slaves.

Finally, the bitterest hypocrisy of them all. Garrison in his livid tirades frequently vilified the U.

S. Constitution as "an agreement with hell" because it accommodated slavery. He saw what too few Americans saw but practically every foreign visitor commented on the tragic irony of slavery in a republic that espoused freedom.

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

comments powered by Disqus