The Year With No Summer: How the hardships and the politics of 1816 compare with today’s

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Paul H. Mills

By Paul Mills

The snow storm that invaded Maine a few days ago along with equivocal prospects for both our health and the economy have brought to mind the question of whether Maine has ever confronted other problematic seasons such as the one that is about to unfold. Though a familiar point of comparison has been the 1918 Flu Epidemic there’s also the dramatic year without a summer, 1816.

Like this year’s COVID pandemic, the crisis of 1816 began the previous year in the Far East, just 2,500 miles due south from Wuhan, China. It was the deadliest explosion in recorded history – a hundred times more powerful than 1981’s Mount St. Helens – the volcanic eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora. Almost immediately killing 100,000 people nearby, it tossed 55 million tons of sulfur-dioxide gas more than 20 miles into the heavens. When it arrived there the sulfur-dioxide soon merged with hydroxide gas – in liquid form known as hydrogen peroxide.

The chemical outcome was an aerosol cloud that gradually spread across the entire earth that gave rise to a seizure that rivaled the current Corona crisis.

Here in Maine the impact included snow storms and freezing weather in May. But unlike the snow, wind and freezing temperatures that has beleaguered the state in recent days, the 1816 conditions were more crippling. The Tambora cloud blocked out so much of the sun’s rays that temperatures plummeted. Maine thus experienced snow not just in May but also in June.

Infrared image of Mount Tambora, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia. Taken from the space shuttle Endeavour on May 13, 1992. (Photo by Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center)

The colder temperatures froze plant life before most of it could be harvested. The ever-necessary corn harvest on which so much livestock not to mention livelihood depended was in Maine almost nonexistent. Hay and oat shortages led to an immobilization caused by the inability to nourish the only means of long distance land transportation then known to civilization: horses. (However much we may struggle today with the curtailments of COVID, availability of affordable, low priced fuel is not one of them; there’s now a glut of petroleum products. The price at the pump to gas up has rarely been lower.)

A few positive initiatives of ingenuity arose from the challenges, however. An attempt to free the world from its dependency on crop fueled transportation led to the invention of the bicycle. The crisis occasioned by the Tambora eruption would also accelerate interest in the development of railroad steam locomotives, then only in the experimental stage but which made their commercial debut a decade later.

Though the entire northern hemisphere was in some ways affected, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont – with their already short growing season – bore a disproportionate brunt. As a consequence thousands from the region fled to the somewhat more temperate regions of the Midwest. In the decade from 1810 to 1820, Ohio’s population grew by some 150 percent, from 231,000 to 581,000. Maine’s went up by just 30 percent, ending the decade at just under 300,000 in its first year of emancipation from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

As with the COVID pandemic today, the Tambora crisis occurred in a presidential election year. Tambora appeared to have few political overtones, however, and was not an issue in the presidential campaign. There was very little of the contention that typically accompanies an “open” – that is one with no incumbent running – election. Secretary of State James Monroe, the Democratic-Republican nominee was a shoo-in to succeed President Madison. His opponent, Scarborough native, New York U.S. Senator Rufus King, brother to Maine’s future governor William King, was Monroe’s opponent, the election marking the last time the fading Federalist party would field a presidential candidate. King wound up winning just Massachusetts – which then included Maine – along with Connecticut and Delaware. The other 16 states fell in line behind Monroe, the last of the founding father’s generation, in an electoral vote landslide of 183 to 34. King offered this assessment, reciting that Monroe “had the zealous support of nobody, and he was exempt from the hostility of everybody.”

There was little discussion of any government role to stem the hardships of a year without summer. It was a de-politicized climate that might offer consolation to President Trump were he in office at that time. The media did not appear to call either the sitting President Madison or his protégé, Secretary Monroe on the carpet for either the crisis or for failing to somehow anticipate it. To be sure, as with today’s pandemic, there were regional variations in Tambora’s impact, the northeast being harder hit than the rest of the country but there would be neither a White House declaration of emergency nor a federal stimulus package in this era of more limited government in America. (European governments tended to be more interventionist in confronting the predicament.) The fact that those afflicted did not have the capacity to be highly contagious to others was another distinguishing characteristic that may well have played a role in the more hands-off temperament of American leaders of the time.

Congressional elections were another matter. Seventy percent of incumbents who ran were ousted, a record that has never been surpassed. Though the meager harvests and resulting high prices occasioned by Tambora were a factor, the leading issue instead was a law Congress enacted in April to double the salaries of its members, to the then munificent sum of $1,500 a year for the part time positions (Congress usually met for less than half a year in this era).

Reflecting the national outcome, Maine not only ousted two of the three incumbents running again but also flipped partisan control of the entire delegation from a five to two Federalist advantage to a four to three Democratic-Republican party control of the seven seats Maine then had in the U.S. House.

The leading issue in Maine that year was the perennial one of whether “the District” should separate from Massachusetts. No fewer than two referenda in 1816 occurred in the space of three and a half months on the question. In the first vote in late May, the Separatists commanded a majority that was nearly the 60 percent required to win recognition for independence.

Even though by the time of the second plebiscite, in early September, Massachusetts reduced the required majority to 55.5 percent the Separatists also narrowly lost again, its vote total falling by some six percentage points from what they had achieved in the spring even though they still won a majority. Thus, at a time when hardships from the Tambora eruption had been worsening, support for cutting the umbilical chord with the Bay State was declining. It may have been perceived as an improvident time for the Commonwealth’s offspring to flee the nest.

It would be only another four years before Maine would be able to annul its marriage with Massachusetts.

It would be – with rare exceptions – over two centuries before it would be on the threshold of a summer with an apparent prospectus as comparable to the one we may be facing today.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by e-mail pmills@myfairpoint.net

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