During the period from 1800 to 1835, what was then called Washington City underwent significant social change with regard to slavery. It came to offer more opportunities for free African Americans than any other place in the country, with the possible exception of New Orleans. In 1800 when the city was established, enslaved people outnumbered free blacks by four-to-one. By 1830, free blacks outnumbered those enslaved. Of course, this was also the national capital for slaveholders, and slave trafficking was a thriving enterprise.
In 1829, Beverly Snow, a recently freed slave with extraordinary talents, arrived from Lynchburg, Virginia. He had exceptional cooking skills and a friendly, outgoing manner of wit and charm. After several years of hard work he realized his dream to own and operate his own elegant restaurant, Snow’s Epicurean Eating House. A keen business sense and an amazing ability for promotion helped the restaurant to become an incredibly successful venture. His customers included some of the nation’s most influential people, and the restaurant offered a convivial atmosphere for people of both races.
Snow’s story by itself is fascinating to read, but it is only a small part of a deeply disturbing series of events that occurred in 1835 and involved in key roles the lyricist of “The Star Spangled Banner” and the president of the United States. Jefferson Morley masterfully tells the story (it is really several stories) in his absorbing Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835. This book reminds us how deeply entrenched proslavery forces were in the nation’s capital and what a struggle it was for African Americans to receive justice and for abolitionists to be heard.
Arthur Bowen was an 18-year-old slave owned by Anna Thornton, the widow of William Thornton, who had been architect of the U.S. Capitol. One night in August, Arthur, intoxicated and influenced by talk about freedom, carried an ax into a bedroom where Mrs. Thornton, her mother and Arthur’s mother were asleep. Although the women were awakened when the door opened and no one was harmed, Arthur was arrested and tried for attempted murder. Within days, Reuben Crandall, a white man with a medical background, was arrested for “exhibiting and circulating dangerous and insurrectionary writings.”
These arrests led to the beginning of what became Washington’s first race riot when a mob, composed primarily of poor white men and boys, took to the streets. They were unable to get inside the jail to lynch the prisoners, but the next day, after spreading an unverifiable, unflattering rumor about Snow, they focused on trashing his restaurant. This explains the use of “Snow Riot” or “Snow-Storm” to describe the mob’s actions. As Morley points out, the rioters chose their targets carefully. Their anger was directed toward the small group of black men who were doing the most to change the slave system.
The prosecutor in both criminal cases was Francis Scott Key, who served for seven years as the city’s district attorney. He had grown up on the family plantation with many slaves. He was personally incapable of brutality and freed seven of his own slaves. Key saw himself as a humanitarian and early in his career defended African Americans in court. But he regarded them as inferior people who could not cope with freedom. He was a founder of the American Colonization Society, which believed that African emigration would end slavery here. An important aspect of his job as district attorney was to keep white men from losing their human property. It should be noted as well that Key’s brother-in-law and one of his best friends was Roger Taney, who as chief justice of the Supreme Court is best known for his role in the 1856 Dred Scott decision.
Anna Thornton, the alleged victim in the incident that helped spark the rioting, stands out as a courageous person who went to great lengths to see that as much justice as possible under the circumstances was done. A respected socialite who owned other slaves, she used every means she could to save Arthur’s life, including appeals to President Andrew Jackson.
Morley, the Washington correspondent for Salon, was both an editor and reporter for The Washington Post and The New Republic, among other publications. He is also the author of Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA. His important and well-told story of the “Snow-Storm” is an enlightening account of racial tension in pre-Civil War America.