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All Thing Being Equal

The Vernal Equinox and the 18th Century

The excitement is palpable, isn’t it? You can feel it in your bones! After months of waiting, the best, nay, the most important day of the year is finally upon us: The Vernal Equinox!

This meme, made by Yours, Truly, is clearly (lovingly) ripped off from Monty Python.

I’ll give you a moment to regain your composure… Okay, let’s get started. The Vernal Equinox has long been a date of note for humankind. Sure, you might be amongst the millions of people across the globe who take no notice of its equal distribution of day and night every March, but be assured there are many people who do.

Some do it for religious purposes, some for scientific purposes, and, I would wager, some because they’re stuck at home for two weeks for Social Distancing 2020 and are looking for something, anything to occupy their minds. Well, friends, your favorite Colonial Williamsburg astronomy nerd is here to help!

You see, our ancestors have been watching the skies for thousands of years, and in all the days and nights of studying the heavens, today — the Vernal Equinox — has consistently stood above many others as one worthy of note. This is true today, and it was true in the 18th century. George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all remark in diary entries, letters, and publications about the equinoxes, giving us an indication of just how important these days were in their lives, and the lives of people living and working during the time. With your kind permission, then, I invite you to delve a little deeper with me as to why — of all the days of the year — people of the 18th century considered the Vernal Equinox is one of the most significant.

The Growing Season

Most people recognize the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes as the days of the year where day and night are equal, but this even-split time is indicative of something extremely important: the changing seasons. For us, in the Northern Hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox is the official transition into Spring, the time of year when we can expect to sow crops in preparation for the growing season. This regularity is recognized as vital in the 1752 almanac Poor Richard improved,

“...it was on Account of the Seasons, in a great Measure, that the Year was instituted, their [the Ancient People] chief Regard and Attention was, that the same Parts of the Year should always correspond to the same Seasons; i.e. that the Beginning of the Year should always be when the Sun was in the same Point of his Orbit; and that they should keep Pace, come round, and end together.”

In this passage, Richard Saunders refers to the fact that even our Ancient Ancestors understood the value of a calendar that was consistent with the seasons. While, by 1752, people clearly understood it was the Earth in orbit around the Sun (not the other way around), the regular rotation of the seasons and the days marking specific points of the Earth’s orbit remained crucial, which is why almanacs then, just as today, noted the equinoxes, solstices, and other significant days in the celestial year.

1737 Almanac (Presbyterian Historical Society)

The Campaign Season

While Spring, as noted above, can be a time for growth and new life, the Vernal Equinox also marks the beginning of the season for one of humankind’s most horrific inventions: War. Commonly referred to as “Campaign Season,” the equinoxes encompass a warmer part of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, which means armies march and shots are fired. The spring of 1775 forever changed the course of history when British troops marched on Lexington and Concord, initiating an eight-year war for American independence. Nearly every major battle of the American Revolution is fought between or very near the equinoxes, and those which aren’t (such as the Battle of Trenton where Washington crosses the Delaware River), are noted as exceptions.

Washington at the Delaware by Edward Hicks (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Even the Battle of Yorktown, which occurred a month after the Autumnal Equinox in 1781, was directly affected by the Admiral Comte de Grasse’s understanding of the seasons and weather patterns. As noted by James Madison, who got some interesting news about the French Fleet in August of 1781,

“A vessel is also just come up from the W. Indies. Her intelligence relates merely to the arrival of the 4 french ships which were at the Havannah, at Hispaniola in order to join the whole fleet which was expected there. As the Hurricane Months were just at hand, it is not improbable that this rendevouz was meant as a preliminary to some extra operation, Whether Europe or elsewhere will be the scene of it, it does not belong to me to say.”

It would appear that the hurricane season surrounding the Autumnal Equinox led the Admiral Comte de Grasse to remove his fleet from the West Indies. This was highly favorable to the Americans, as his destination of choice was the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, only a few miles down river of Yorktown.

A MAP and CHART/ of those Parts of the/ BAY OF CHESAPEAK/ YORK and JAMES RIVERS/ which are at present/ The SEAT of WAR (Colonial Williamsburg)

The Enlightenment Perspective

Practical matters aside, the Vernal Equinox marks an important milestone in humankind’s understanding of the Universe. The Enlightenment, or as they called it in the 18th century, “The Age of Reason,” sought to better comprehend the Natural Law, that which governs the Earth and all her surroundings as crafted by the Creator. In the 18th-century mindset, the cosmos could very well have been constructed arbitrarily, without laws or patterns, but observation and investigation quickly dispel such notions. The equinox, amongst other regular occurrences in the Universal Clock command our attention and investigation, and through the work of natural philosophers such as Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton, as well as the countless stargazers who came before, our species has crawled from the darkness of ignorance to a position of intellectual dominance. As James Ferguson wrote in his popular 18th-century book Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles:

“From this branch of knowledge [Astronomy] we also learn by what means or laws the Almighty carries on, and continues, the wonderful harmony, order, and connection observable throughout the planetary system; and are led by very powerful arguments to form this pleasing deduction, that minds capable of such deep researches, not only derive their origins from that Adorable Being, but also are incited to inspire after a more perfect knowledge of his nature, and a stricter conformity to his will.”

Ferguson’s Planetary Phases, including a depiction of the Earth in orbit on its axis (Figure I), with the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes. (From the Science Photo Library)

Conclusion

So, Vernal Equinox 2021 is gonna be lit, right? Okay, okay. So, maybe you won’t necessarily plan to throw a party next year when the Vernal Equinox rolls around (March 20 at 5:37 a.m. 2021, if you’re wondering), but I hope you can see how an understanding of the equinoxes and their place in the celestial and common calendars have been an important part of life for hundreds, indeed thousands of years. Throughout history, this single point in the year has signified everything from new life, to tragedy, to the intellectual expanse of our species. Its consistency and predictability offers a window into the natural world, and the study of this particular moment in our calendar has given us a greater understanding of not only the Universe, but our place within it.

Thanks for joining me, Dear Reader. Until next time.



Robert Weathers has been working as a first-person interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg since January 2008 and
portrays Nation Builder George Wythe. When he is not in breeches, he can often be found wearing shorts no matter the weather, and riding roller coasters with his wife Kaitlyn.

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