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, Snow-Storm in August, says David Maraniss, “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.”
In this vivid account, Salon correspondent Jefferson Morley explores Washington in 1835, a city that 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.
Above: Francis Scott Key, witnessing the British bombs bursting in air over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor on September 14, 1814, the day he wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Painting by Percy E. Moran, 1912. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
“Morley boldly and elegantly recreates a moment in time when free black businessmen mingled with their white counterparts while proponents of slavery and abolitionists struggled to co-exist in the nation’s bustling capital.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“The historical characters, famous and forgotten, come to life in affecting and surprising ways without fictional artifice, a tribute to Morley’s meticulous research and empathetic narrative style.”
—Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post
“A gripping, fast-paced narrative … A noteworthy, insightful look into an often overlooked chapter in American history.”
“Absorbing … An enlightening account of racial tension in pre-Civil War America.”
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