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Snow-Storm in August: Washington City,…

Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the…

by Jefferson Morley

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In between the War for Independence and the Civil War calls for the abolition of slavery began to grow in number and volume, but few people could imagine whites and former black slaves living peacefully side-by-side. Some favored re-settling freed slaves in Africa or the Caribbean, but understandably most blacks viewed America as their home and didn't relish the idea of being shipped off to a land they'd never known. But it didn't stop a few from agitating in southern states, and scattered reports of slave uprisings caused fear and anxiousness among those who owned such "human property."

Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 by Jefferson Morley tells the story of combustible race relations in the American capitol. Arthur Bowen, a young slave owned by Anna Thornton (widow of William Thornton, designer of the U. S. Capitol) who enjoyed a fair amount of liberty, came home very drunk late one night. What is known is that he picked up an axe and entered his mistresses' bedroom where his own mother also slept, and mumbled some drunken threats. His actual intent isn't known but the women panicked and Arthur was eventually arrested and charged with attempted murder. In the already charged atmosphere, mobs of white men quickly formed and threatened to take Arthur to "Judge Lynch."

At the same time a former slave named Beverly Snow (a man, not a woman) ran a popular and successful restaurant in Washington. Unlike Arthur, Beverly did not mix much with those pressing for emancipation, but was very forward and cheeky in promoting himself and his restaurant (which bothered some people). Rumors quickly spread that Snow had made offensive comments about white women, and the two situations combined to feed mob riots which came to be known as the "Snow-Storm."

Morley has written an interesting account of this long forgotten episode of history. He adds in the story of F. S. Key, whose song "The Star-Spangled Banner" was later adopted as the national anthem, and who as District Attorney prosecuted Bowen and Reuben Crandall, a white man who was allegedly circulating abolitionist newspapers. It's not a deep or dry history but is instead very readable, including dialog as it was recorded at the time ("edited for clarity") and it mostly avoids moralizing or making too many judgments. It's an interesting view of the atmosphere and tensions in society as slavery began it's long and painful death.

(I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher. This review is modified from my 6/5/12 blog review at bookworm-dad.blogspot.com.) ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
Interesting points in fascinating book on DC´s 1st race riot:

Moreley, in his important book

Snow-storm in August : Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the forgotten race riot of 1835

(available via DC Public Library, but most certainly worth buying...) not only puts together a sound context for the Snow Riots, but also draws together strands which began then, and still define, he claims, our politics today. I found most striking his juxtaposing of property rights and individual vs. community as well as freedom of speech, and whether free speech is applied best for owners (elites) vs. the people (the 99%). Excellent book.

Link here:

Shira Destinie
MEOW Date: Monday, April 23, 12014 H.E. (Holocene Era) ( )
  MEOWDate | Jul 15, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385533373, Hardcover)

A gripping narrative history of the explosive events that drew together Francis Scott Key, Andrew Jackson, and an 18-year-old slave on trial for attempted murder.

In 1835, the city of Washington pulsed with change. As newly freed African Americans from the South poured in, free blacks outnumbered slaves for the first time. Radical notions of abolishing slavery circulated on the city's streets, and white residents were forced to confront new ideas of what the nation's future might look like.

On the night of August 4th, Arthur Bowen, an eighteen-year-old slave, stumbled into the bedroom where his owner, Anna Thornton, slept. He had an ax in the crook of his arm. An alarm was raised, and he ran away. Word of the incident spread rapidly, and within days, Washington's first race riot exploded, as whites fearing a slave rebellion attacked the property of the free blacks. Residents dubbed the event the “Snow-Storm," in reference to the central role of Beverly Snow, a flamboyant former slave turned successful restaurateur, who became the target of the mob's rage.

In the wake of the riot came two sensational criminal trials that gripped the city. Prosecuting both cases was none other than Francis Scott Key, a politically ambitious attorney famous for writing the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” who few now remember served as the city's district attorney for eight years. Key defended slavery until the twilight's last gleaming, and pandered to racial fears by seeking capital punishment for Arthur Bowen. But in a surprise twist his prosecution was thwarted by Arthur's ostensible victim, Anna Thornton, a respected socialite who sought the help of President Andrew Jackson.

Ranging beyond the familiar confines of the White House and the Capitol, Snow-Storm in August delivers readers into an unknown chapter of American history with a textured and absorbing account of the racial secrets and contradictions that coursed beneath the freewheeling capital of a rising world power.

"Snow-Storm in August is the sort of book I most love to read: history so fresh it feels alive, yet introducing me to a time and place that I had little known or utterly misunderstood. After reading Jefferson Morley's vibrant account, one can never hear 'The Star-Spangled Banner' the same way again."
—David Maraniss, author of Barack Obama: The Story

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:30 -0400)

Portrays how the 19th century struggle against slavery erupted in Washington DC, thrusting the ambitious District Attorney Francis Scott Key into a uniquely American battle for justice.

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