1831 Year of Eclipse

Louis P. Masur

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

The year 1831 was, for the United States, a crucial time when the nation was no longer a young, uncomplicated republic but, rather, a dynamic and conflicted country inching toward cataclysm. By the year's end, nearly every aspect of its political, social, and cultural life had undergone profound change.

Masur organizes 1831 around the themes that he suggests underlie many of the tumultuous events of the year: slavery (or its abolition); the still unresolved tension between states' rights and national priorities; the competing passions of religion and politics; and the alarming effects of new machinery of Americans' relationship to the land. By the summer of 1831, Nat Turner's rebellion was sparking ever more violent arguments over the future of slavery; Andrew Jackson's administration threatened to unravel; and dissent over the economic future of the country festered. Religious revivalism sweeping the North inspired agitation in the working classes; steamboats, railroads, and mechanized reapers were introduced in the competitive rush for profits; and Jackson's harsh policies toward the Cherokee erased most Indians' last hopes of autonomy. Important visitors—including Gustave Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville—watched the developments closely. Their views on this turbulent year would shape world opinion of the new American nation for generations to come.

Masur weaves together these disparate events and shows that they shaped both the strategies by which the nation would survive and the very nature of the American character. In 1831 we find an important and challenging interpretation of antebellum America.


Praise for 1831

"As a scholar of the new republic and antebellum periods, I long anticipated the publication of Lou Masur's 1831. What I did not expect was how impressively this short book would work in the classroom, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. 1831 is one of those rare books that could park itself on historians' syllabi for a generation, joining other teaching success stories as John Demos's A Little Commonwealth, Paul Johnson's A Shopkeepers' Millennium, and Eric Foner's Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. Since I began college teaching in the mid-1990s, I have taken considerable pedagogical pleasure in emphasizing significant dates in American history that the students would not likely recognize as such. Forget 1776 and 1861—what about . . . 1831, when a cavalcade of seemingly unrelated events collided at the height of the Age of Jackson to change American history forever. Masur's book not only lays out these events (Nat Turner's Rebellion, the founding of the Liberator, Finney's Rochester revival, Tocqueville's visit, Jackson's Indian policies, and inventions like McCormick's reaper, to name a few), but in readable prose explains how they were related, and what they meant."—Jonathan Earle, University of Kansas

"I assigned Masur's 1831 in a ten-student graduate seminar on modern United States history at Brown University in the Spring semester of 2002. This was both a reading and research seminar . . . Students universally enjoyed the book and thought it was an engaging read. They also thought that Masur's book did more than most others could to reveal the interconnectedness of events and the importance of contingency—that is, the way a sudden, unpredictable event such as the disappearance of William Morgan can change the social, cultural, and political landscape."—Michael Vorenberg, Brown University

"I use Louis Masur's 1831 in my research seminar for history majors. It works well on two counts: first, it is engagingly written and, second, it gives students a superb overview of various antebellum topics that might be worthy of research . . . A fascinating account."—Daniel Herman, Central Washington University

"Not since Bernard De Voto's Year of Decision, 1846, published almost sixty years ago, have we had such a creative, well-intergrated work about a pivotal and defining moment in the nation's history. 1831 is filled with fresh and little-known information skillfully woven into a more familiar and highly meaningful narrative."—Michael Kammen

"It was the year of Nat Turner's slave rebellion, of the launching of Garrison's Liberator, of Tocqueville's visit to the United States, of Cyrus McCormick's invention of the mechanical reaper, and of many other pivotal events. Annus mirabilis, 1831 became the hinge of fate for the future of America, both good and ill. Louis Masur has captured the flavor of this crucial year in this captivating book."—James M. McPherson

"Louis Masur has set himself up in a propitious perch astride the end of republican America and the ascendance of that messier thing called democracy. It is as if Alexis de Tocqueville returned and, with all the advantages of historical hindsight, rewrote his classic account of modern America's birth."—Joseph J. Ellis

"Masur has a sure eye for the lively and perceptive quotation . . . [1831] gives insight into the character of the United States and, also important, entertains with the stories it provides . . . Thoroughly researched and well written."—David Traxel, The New York Times Book Review

"1831 is the kind of solidly researched, briskly presented popular history that helps sharpen our picture of a surprisingly pivotal era."—Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times

"Highly readable, erudite, and without a misstep, it succeeds marvelously at once in presenting an impressionistic feel for the period and at suggesting a number of deeper themes . . . [Masur] masterfully incorporates political issues into the story without eviscerating the momentous social and cultural elements of the day."—Peter S. Field, University of Canterbury, American Nineteenth Century History

"Masur's voice is steady and quietly elegant . . . The country he portrays bristles with paradox and contention, with promise and
qlplight. In this enjoyable book, Masur satisfies us that 1831 was a year worth remembering."—Mark Dunkelman, Providence Sunday Journal

"Masur has done a superb job of creating a richly textured account of a portentous year in American history." —Jim Doyle, Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt



Everyone knew it was coming. "THE GREAT ECLIPSE OF 1831 will be one of the most remarkable that will again be witnessed in the United States for a long course of years," alerted Ash's Pocket...

Read the full excerpt


  • Louis P. Masur

  • Louis Masur, a professor of history at the City University of New York and the editor of Reviews in American History, is the author of Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865.

  • Louis P. Masur