by Karl Kurtz
In an excellent commentary on Congress, "The Best Way to Fix Government Dysfunction," Lee Hamilton of the Center on Congress at Indiana University tells a story about the dedication to duty of a Connecticut state legislator, Col. Abraham Davenport, on a "dark day" in New England in 1780 that many thought to be the Judgment Day.
I had never heard the story before, so I did a search on Abraham Davenport and found a marvelous Stamford Historical Society website. It turns out that I probably should have known about Col. Davenport, as John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about him, John F. Kennedy quoted him numerous times in his 1960 presidential campaign, and the Connecticut Legislature commemorated him on the 200th anniversary of the dark day in 1980:
...Abraham’s character was firm, even stern, constant in his dedication to his responsibilities concerning all of community and church life, which at this time were a single entity. Nothing embodies this better than his role during New England’s famous Dark Day—a day where the skies of the Northeast, for no explicable reason remained almost completely dim. Davenport’s resolve during this troubling time is described by Timothy Dwight of Yale in his Travels in New England and New York, published 1822.
“The 19th of May, 1780, was a remarkably dark day. Candles were lighted in many houses; the birds were silent and disappeared; and the fowls retired to roost. The legislature of Connecticut was then in session at Hartford. A very general opinion prevailed that the Day of Judgment was at hand. The House of Representatives, being unable to transact their business, adjourned. A proposal to adjourn the Council [Senate or Upper House] was under consideration. When the opinion of Col. Davenport was asked, he answered, ‘I am against an adjournment. The Day of Judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”
And so the State Senate continued working on legislation by candlelight until later in the afternoon, when the darkness eventually dissipated, permitting sunlight to return. The cause of this strange occurrence has never been conclusively determined by scholars, but the theory of smoke emerging from a vast forest fire in Canada has been suggested. Over the years Abraham Davenport’s example of calmness and fortitude during a period of uncertainty and darkness has inspired many on local, state and national levels of public life.
In 1868, John Greenleaf Whittier, the noted New England poet, commemorated this unusual phenomenon in a poem titled Abraham Davenport, published in his book Tent On The Beach.
In November of 1934, during the very depths of the Great Depression, a mural depicting Abraham Davenport standing before the Governor Trumbull on the Dark Day was dedicated. Painted by Delos Palmer under a commission from the W. P. A., it hung in the City Courtroom, Old Town Hall. At the dedication ceremony Judge Charles Davenport Lockwood stated that it “should be an inspiration and a lesson during these days of hard times.”
In his 1960 campaign for President of the United States, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy referred to Abraham Davenport and the Dark Day in several speeches. After citing Dwight and Whittier he concluded by saying, “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.”
The Dark Day’s two hundredth anniversary did not go by unnoticed. On February 27, 1980, a commemorative ceremony was held at Hartford in the Connecticut House of Representatives chamber. The curtains were ordered drawn before the session began. Then House speaker Ernest N. Abate of Stamford proceeded to read Whittier’s famous poem followed by a brief biography of Davenport. As the speaker began, the chamber’s lights were gradually dimmed, until the concluding remarks were made in almost total darkness; upon which illumination was restored....
Photo credits: The Stamford Historical Society