On another May 19th -- May 19, 1780, many New Englanders believed the end of the world was upon us. It was the so-called Dark Day. Not just a dark mood, but a really dark day. “A horror of great darkness,” the poet John Greenleaf Whittier called it, and compared it to “the twilight of the gods.”
Of course, the mood was dark, too. The Revolutionary War was dragging on to its fourth year. We’d just gotten through a terrifically cold winter. The Hudson River froze over, which allowed the British to drag their cannon across it. Reportedly, it was the coldest winter ever recorded in North America.
The Dark Day began as early as 10 a.m. in some areas, when the morning sun appeared reddish in the sky, and the sky appeared yellowish and grew dark by afternoon. At nightfall, the moon, too, appeared red, though some areas of New England had rain. With no ready explanation, many took it as an act of God to indicate the end of days. Many ran from their homes and places of business, and filled the churches and meeting houses in panic.
Whittier, in his 1868 poem “Abraham Davenport”, described the famous incident in the Connecticut legislature, when member Abraham Davenport decided in these politically dark days of the Revolutionary War, that Dark Day or not, he would meet his Maker whenever called. But in the meantime, duty called, so he exhorted that all his fellow politicos stay to task that day, and work by candlelight.
In the old days (a custom laid aside
With breeches and cocked hats) the people sent
Their wisest men to make the public laws.
And so, from a brown homestead, where the Sound
Drinks the small tribute of the Mianus,
Waved over by the woods of Rippowams,
And hallowed by pure lives and tranquil deaths,
Stamford sent up to the councils of the State
Wisdom and grace in Abraham Davenport.
'Twas on a May-day of the far old year
Seventeen hundred eighty, that there fell
Over the bloom and sweet life of the Spring
Over the fresh earth and the heaven of noon,
A horror of great darkness, like the night
In day of which the Norland sagas tell,
The Twilight of the Gods. The low-hung sky
Was black with ominous clouds, save where its rim
Was fringed with a dull glow, like that which climbs
The crater's sides from the red hell below.
Birds ceased to sing, and all the barnyard fowls
Roosted; the cattle at the pasture bars
Lowed, and looked homeward; bats on leathern wings
Flitted abroad; the sounds of labor died;
Men prayed, and women wept; all ears grew sharp
To hear the doom-blast of the trumpet shatter
The black sky, that the dreadful face of Christ
Might look from the rent clouds, not as He looked
A loving guest at Bethany, but stern
As Justice and inexorable Law.
Meanwhile in the old State House, dim as ghosts,
Sat the lawgivers of Connecticut,
Trembling beneath their legislative robes.
"It is the Lord's Great Day! Let us adjourn,"
Some said; and then, as if with one accord,
All eyes were turned to Abraham Davenport.
He rose, slow cleaving with his steady voice
The intolerable hush. "This well may be
The Day of Judgment which the world awaits;
But be it so or not, I only know
My present duty, and my Lord's command
To occupy till He come. So at the post
Where He hast set me in His providence,
I choose, for one, to meet Him face to face,
No faithless servant frightened from my task,
But ready when the Lord of the harvest calls;
And therefore, with all reverence, I would say,
Let God do His work, we will see to ours.
Bring in the candles." And they brought them in.
Then by the flaring lights the Speaker read,
Albeit with husky voice and shaking hands,
An act to amend an act to regulate
The shad and alewive fisheries, Whereupon
Wisely and well spake Abraham Davenport,
Straight to the question, with no figures of speech
Save the ten Arab signs, yet not without
The shrewd dry humor natural to the man:
His awe-struck colleagues listening all the while,
Between the pauses of his argument,
To hear the thunder of the wrath of God
Break from the hollow trumpet of the cloud.
And there he stands in memory to this day,
Erect, self-poised, a rugged face, half seen
Against the background of unnatural dark,
A witness to the ages as they pass,
That simple duty hath no place for fear.
In 1934, another time of great darkness in terms of the economy and a lack of hope, artist Delos Palmer, who interestingly did a lot of dime novel illustrations, received a W.P.A. Federal Artists Project commission to paint a depiction of Abraham Davenport’s courage on the Dark Day. The painting, shown above, depicts Davenport standing before Governor Trumbull with a lit candle between them. The painting was meant to be more than just an homage to the past, but as Judge Charles Davenport remarked at the dedication ceremony, “should be an inspiration and a lesson during these days of hard times.”
In another era of political darkness Senator John F. Kennedy in his 1960 Presidential campaign recalled Abraham Davenport’s courage and devotion to duty, “I hope in a dark and uncertain period in our own country that we, too, may bring candles to help light our country’s way.”
In what must have been an especially moving ceremony, the 200th anniversary year of Davenport’s actions on the Dark Day was held at the Connecticut House of Representatives in Hartford in February of 1980. The curtains were drawn in the chamber, and then House speaker Ernest Abate of Stamford, Davenport’s home town, read Whittier’s poem. As he spoke, the lights were gradually dimmed in the chamber, and he when he finished, it was completely dark.
What seems likely to historians, especially researchers in weather and the environment, that massive forest fires caused excessive smoke, blotting out the sky. These fires were probably started as intentional burns to clear land in the new settlements of New Hampshire and in the Lake Champlain area.
Today in these dark days, at least economically, we might well take Abraham Davenport’s example once more and keep our shoulders to the wheel, our hands to the plow, and perhaps keep fixed our trust in what may be a higher purpose for our existence, that “simple duty hath no fear.” Bring in the candles.
For more on the Dark Day, have a look at this excellent article by John Horrigan. For more on Abraham Davenport and the Dark Day, have a look at this Stamford, Connecticut website.
Note: The painting above is display at Stamford’s Old Town Hall, and this digital photograph is by Steve Castagneto, Academy of Information Technology, Stamford.