Snow-Storm in August

In 'Snow-Storm,' author Jefferson Morley intensely captures the tension-filled 1830s and draws historical figures of the time in subtle shadings.

Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 By Jefferson Morley Knopf Doubleday 352 pp.

Beverly Snow was a free man of color who owned and operated the Epicurean Eating House in Washington, D.C., in 1835. It was a class act – Would you like guava jelly with your plover, ortolans to complement your green turtle? – and Snow an artful, entertaining host. But Snow is also a foil for Jefferson Morley's other Washington in Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835, a betwixt-and-between place with the South below and the North above. "High finance and human slavery were reconciled in the coordinates of the new capital city," and for every Beverly Snow, there were multiple black men and women "sold at a slave pen at Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, [or] taken in chains from the alley behind G Street."

The 1830s, at this remove, may themselves appear to be betwixt and between, quiet years with big conflicts receding in memory (independence and the War of 1812) or yet to come (the secession and bloodbath of the 1860s). In fact, they were a seriously tense time, especially for border areas like Washington, and this is what Morley so convincingly and intensely captures. Rebellions by the enslaved populations were breaking out -- General Nat's Southampton, Virginia, uprising had just been bloodily quashed, and the Mississippi slave revolt was in progress -- and these flares of violence set a polychromatic background against which the Washington riot plays out.

Morley screws down on a few critical actors in the events. One is the abolitionist Reuben Crandall, who arrived in Georgetown in 1835 and started to spread the anti-slavery word. There is Arthur Bowen, the slave who gave voice to the outrage of his circumstances -- perhaps sparked by attending the discussions of the Philomathean Talking Society -- though unfortunately inebriated and carrying an axe at the time, the time being in his mistress's bedroom late at night. This set the rumor mill in motion, which got the "mechanics" (young white workers) hot and bothered: where was this leading but to insurrection, fueled by abolitionist propaganda -- such as William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator -- flooding in from the North? Before anyone started getting beyond their station, well, probably best to trash any high-profile establishment, like Snow's eatery -- thus Snow-Storm -- or any number of black-owned businesses or institutions.

Then there is Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote the anthem whose words nobody ever remembers and, more significantly, served as Washington's district attorney. Morley draws Key in subtle shadings, a humanitarian but also a stickler for the law: slavery was legal and incitement to insurrection was not. Caving to rumor, acting on innuendo, he jailed both Crandall and Bowen. Neither man would be found accountable on the charges.

Morley also draws the young capital in shadings, though less subtle. He can be atmospheric -- the hard-packed street stones producing a powdery shroud when ground by carriages' steel wheels -- and dryly humorous, as when he notes that Louisiana Avenue was renamed Indiana Avenue. Imagine the chicanery behind that. Mostly, however, he is chillingly precise: "The white mob tormenting Washington City in August 1835 was not out of control…. The mechanics did not attack all free blacks or all schools. They pursued the small group of black men who were doing the most to undermine the slave system." A riot, yes, but a grim manhunt, too.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City.

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