Today’s guest post comes from Cambridge Ridley Lynch, a PhD student at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is currently working on a project that links American weather study with larger shifts in American science and politics.
In their recent recap of the MCEAS’ “Traces of Early America” conference, Sara Damiano and Michael Blaakman spoke of the need to examine “processes, events, ideas, and dynamics that subsequent history has largely obscured, and that often pose significant evidentiary problems for those who wish to write about them.” Clearly, the work presented at the conference did much to flesh out adumbrations left throughout the historical record, often by focusing on close reading of specific events, personages, and texts. But what about a factor that is so ubiquitous so as to hardly be thought of at all, one that every single person in a historical moment and place experiences at the same time, and yet goes largely unremarked upon in historical texts? Naturally, I’m talking about the weather.
The weather has become a cliché in its own right, the provenance of dullards and small talk. Even so, weather matters, especially in the largely agricultural and pre-industrial context of the Early Republic. Many scholars have already done the work of noting the influence of weather on settlement patterns, agriculture, and economy  Closely related is the concept of climates, climate change, and environmental change. But weather is not, in fact, the same thing as environment, or even climate. Weather connotes a specificity in both time and place. Weather is a microclimate in its own right, ephemeral and mobile, moving quickly and vanishing into thin air, leaving its effects behind. It is literally global even as its rationalization is intensely personal. Throughout human history people have been transfixed by its behavior: in his recent book on meteorology during the early Renaissance, Craig Martin locates weather’s incredible ability to inspire human curiosity in its unpredictability, its potential for violence, and its omnipresence. Indeed, the emotions inspired by catastrophic weather events fit the very definition of Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime.
In years past there has been a cottage industry in a type of climatological determinism, one that speculates about things like how the American Revolution would have turned out under different weather conditions. It’s an amusing thought exercise, but tying weather to very specific moments undercuts a larger question that must be answered: how did weather – in general – influence how early Americans viewed the natural world and their place within it? As historians who look closely at almanacs can tell you, the answer varies from person to person and place to place. Even so, I have found that it is a question that’s worth asking, with interesting results. My own work, which deals in part with collective weather observation and the politics of power in Jacksonian America, uses weather as a lens through which to understand “ordinary” Americans in an turbulent age. There is much to recommend weather as a re-orienting perspective as we think about the constraints that shaped early American life. If, for example, we take seriously for the physical and emotional cost of losing a harvest to a freak hail storm, we might be more attentive to how safeguards against catastrophic weather might affect our subjects’ behavior and how that translated on an economic, political, or religious level. Similarly, it is an important distinction whether early Americans ascribed weather behavior to Providential intent or plain bad luck, and how that changed over time (and why). In short, weather doesn’t just affect individual lives – how it is understood is itself an artifact of broader cultural assumptions and beliefs, and historians can use that understanding as an “in” to their research.
A recent work that gets to the heart of the issues at stake is Matthew Mulcahy’s Hurricanes and Society in the Greater British Caribbean In it, Mulcahy demonstrates a sensitivity to the interplay not just of climate, but of specific weather events. He recounts how the early Caribbean was punctuated by frequent destructive hurricanes, which in turn affected how planters developed the land and ordered society. “The history of hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean,” he writes, “highlights several larger issues of concern to historians of early America, including shifting ideas about the natural world among colonists, the structure of political relationships within colonial society, the increasing political and economic connections between the colonies and other parts of the British Atlantic world, and the articulation of new ideas of sensibility, humanitarianism, and patriotism during the eighteenth century.” A grand claim, to be sure, but his emphasis on the weather really does illuminate how the the constant presence of a wholly unpredictable factor fundamentally influenced how early Caribbean colonization progressed and how early colonists viewed the natural world. All this from an attention to the social effects of low pressure rotary wind systems that interact with bodies of warm water.
So what does this mean for readers of The Junto? I’m not calling for everyone to drop their work and start cataloguing early American weather. But if I inspire not a single history of the environment, then let’s at least make sure that our history is environmental. Whether we work in political, cultural, religious, legal, or any of the myriad historical subfields, it’s worth stopping to take a moment to think about the utterly unpredictable environmental factors that might be at play in our subjects’ lives. If we see weather as a constant in the early Republic, then we recognize that its effects differ according to other constructs like race, gender, class, and politics. Accepting the environment as its own kind of structure of power might help us think more completely about the “full picture” of the early Republic.
 My own introduction to the concepts of weather and culture came from Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “The Puzzle of the American Climate in the Early Colonial Period,” American Historical Review 87, no. 5 (1982): 1262-1289. The work of David Hackett Fischer also shows sensitivity to settlement and climate, as does that of many others.
 For a more recent addition to classics like Cronon’s Changes in the Land, see Jan Golinski, “American Climate and the Civilization of Nature,” in Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, eds. James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew (New York: Routledge, 2008), 153-174.
 See Intimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Weather and Climate, eds. James Rodger Fleming, Vladimir Jankovic, and Deborah R. Coen (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2006), ix-xviii.
 Craig R. Martin, Renaissance Meteorology: From Pompanazzi to Descartes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 16.
 The best example of this line of thinking can be found in the work of David M. Ludlum, who founded the magazine Weatherwise in 1947. Dr. Ludlum has done invaluable work cataloguing early weather events, but his popular books, like The Weather Factor, are light on scholarly analysis and overly geared towards trivia.
 For an excellent examination of the different registers of meteorological reportage, see Vladimir Jankovic, Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650-1820 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
 Matthew Mulcahy, Hurricanes and Society in the Greater British Caribbean, 1624-1783 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 5-6.
 For an analysis of how more recent Wai Chee Dimock, “World History According to Katrina,” in States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies, eds. Russ Castronovo and Susan Gillman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 143-160.