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A Race Riot in the Capitol



Rob Hardy


The idea that one human could own another human is an ancient one, and was settled into European and American culture. In America in the 1830s, there were plenty of people who thought that slavery should be abolished (some thought the best way would be to send all former slaves back to where they came from). In Washington City (before it was Washington D.C.), slavery might have disgusted some, but overall it was the accepted way of doing things, and in the city's bustle you would find many slaves going about their masters' business, but also freedmen making their own way. It made for tension within the city, and sometimes that tension boiled over. Eventually it would explode into civil war, but decades before that, Washington erupted into a race riot, the details of which are recounted in the compelling Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 (Nan A. Talese) by Jefferson Morley. Morley has tied diverse threads into a fascinating story; the social, political, and even culinary themes are here, along with a relatively unflattering portrait of the author of our national anthem. Morley may have exaggerated the importance of the riot within American history, but is completely convincing that it should not be forgotten, and his vivid book will help keep the memory. 




The "Snow" of the "Snow-storm" was a former slave named Beverly Snow. He had been born a slave in Lynchburg, Virginia, and his owners knew he was smart and a good worker. With his owners' support, he started an oyster house in Lynchburg, the beginning of a lifetime as a restaurateur. He may have had to hand over some of his profits to the couple that owned him, but he was also allowed to keep some, and he earned his freedom at age thirty. He would have liked to have built on his local success, but the law of Virginia said that newly-freed slaves had to get out of the state within a year or risk capture and resale into slavery. He and his wife headed to Washington because they could work and live there legally, and other than New Orleans, no other city offered free blacks more opportunities. 




Snow worked hard, eventually setting up the Epicurean Eating House on Pennsylvania Avenue. He had a keen business sense. He seems especially to have enjoyed setting up his advertisements that ran in the papers of the day. "LOOK AT THIS!" said one, continuing below, "The subscriber takes this method of informing his friends that he has just received a fresh supply of very fine VENISON which will be served up in the best style for the accommodation of his customers." He not only served venison, but game birds, crab, fish, and a new French sensation called "patte." His specialty was turtle, and since we don't eat turtle anymore, Morley lets us know the process by which Snow turned the turtle into fricassee and especially into his renowned green turtle soup. Snow was not only a clever chef, he was a storyteller and a wit, and he mingled with his customers in a show of sincere hospitality. Influential people came to dine, and Snow's business was good. 




Snow didn't know Arthur Bowen, a slave who had belonged to William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol, and who was the property of his widow. Bowen was a handful; Mrs. Thornton owned him, and had affection for him, but could not control him. He got drunk one night in 1835, and came home, entering the room where Mrs. Thornton, and also Maria Bowen, his mother, were sleeping. Somehow he carried an ax with him. His mother restrained her son and pushed him out of the back of the house, but Mrs. Thornton had summoned neighbors who heard the drunken young man say such things as "I'll have my freedom, you hear me? I have as much right to freedom as you do." It was not the thing white people wanted to hear at the time. Nat Turner's slave rebellion had happened nearby only four years before, and into Washington and into southern cities was pouring anti-slavery literature which might have put ideas into Bowen's mind.  




Bowen was soon arrested and jailed, but he was in danger of being hanged by a mob. At the same time and locale was Reuben Crandall, a young white man from Connecticut who had been arrested for having and circulating dangerous writings; it seems extraordinary, but to advocate an end of slavery, or to have papers to read about it, put one at risk for being legally arrested. Angry young laborers, who were known at the time as "mechanics," went to the jail, but failing to get Bowen, they made do with smashing the insides of Beverly Snow's restaurant, burning a black boardinghouse, and burning several schoolhouses. Their targets were calculated; Snow was a prosperous black man, making more money than those in the mob, and if his kind had been allowed to prosper, there was no telling how far they might have gone or what freedoms they might have insisted upon. The schools, too, would have spread disagreeable ideas of freedom. 




It was thus that Francis Scott Key entered the tumult, after the riots had died away. Key has only one well-known role in American history, and it was what he was feted for during his lifetime as well, even though his poem set to music did not officially become our national anthem until 1931. He had been brought up on a plantation with many slaves, and owned slaves, but saw himself as a humanitarian. He freed slaves that he owned, and he was not at all the type to use brutality toward anyone. He had defended black people early in his legal career, but came to believe that they were inferiors who could never handle American freedom. He founded the American Colonization Society which championed ending slavery by emigrating out slaves and former slaves. At the time of the riots, he was district attorney for the city and was charged with prosecuting both Arthur Bowen and Reuben Crandall. He may have had a distaste for slavery, but for him the issue was not complicated: slavery was legal, and circulating pamphlets that some might think promoted insurrection was not. He was vigorous in his prosecution of the two men; he was less so when it came time to prosecute the members of the law-breaking mob. 




The decisions about the eventual fate of Bowen and Crandall were out of Key's hands; one of the factors he could not have anticipated was the unending petitions of Mrs. Thornton who did not believe that Bowen had meant to harm her and wanted him to be shown mercy. It is all part of a riveting tale, with some important cameo players. Andrew Jackson, for instance, was a slave-owner, but as President, he received and reviewed Mrs. Thornton's pleas. Also here is Key's brother-in-law and best friend Roger Taney, who having been boosted by Key early in his career, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and is best known for his role in the notorious 1856 Dred Scott decision. Morley vividly recreates the episodes connected to the riot, and dramatically depicts the personalities involved, giving important insight into race relations before the Civil War.



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