Francis Scott Key's Shameful Role in the "Snow Riot"--Washington DC's First Race Riot

Roundup: Talking About History

The"Snow Riot" of 1835 began when young Arthur Bowen, a slave, who had gotten drunk one summer night, appeared at the door of his master, Anna Maria Thornton, one of the leading ladies in Washington DC, carrying an ax. On February 6, 2005, the Washington Post featured a long article about the riot written by Jefferson Morley. The subhead: "When a young slave rattled his chains, a nation's hypocrisy was revealed -- and Washington discovered that the man who wrote the national anthem had a thing or two to learn about freedom."

... ARTHUR BOWEN'S MIDNIGHT RAMBLE was followed by Washington's first race riot, an outbreak of violence that has largely been forgotten. Above all, the malign role of Francis Scott Key in the capital's first convulsion of racial violence has not been properly recognized. This American icon stood at the intersection of the racial, political and social forces that stoked Washington's unrest. Back then, the city was an embryo of the metropolis it would become. But it was growing rapidly. Once a muddy village, Washington had emerged in the 1830s as a thriving city of 20,000 people. "Recklessness and extravagance" were fast becoming the norm of city life, veteran editor Ben Perley later wrote. "Laxity of morals and the coolest disregard possible characterized that period of our existence."

In 1835, Key was a leading citizen of the capital city. He was not only the author of the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner," the popular tune that was already considered the nation's anthem (although it was not officially adopted until 1931). He was also a prosperous lawyer, a vestryman at St. John's Episcopal Church and the father of 10 children. Two years earlier, President Jackson had named him the city's district attorney. Key was an able and honest man -- yet also a menace. In the capital city's moment of crisis and high emotion, the man who defined America as "the land of the free and the home of the brave" proved to be a determined foe of freedom of speech and a smug advocate of white supremacy.

The American amnesia is perhaps understandable. It is unsettling to remember that, in the cold winter of 1836, Francis Scott Key sought the death penalty for an 18-year-old, apparently as a civics lesson to the people of Washington and the nation. It is harder, but perhaps healthier, to recall what has been lost history. Key, a founding father of the American spirit, was quietly thwarted by a better sort of woman, a Washington socialite with unsuspected political skills, driven by love and family secrets, a woman named Anna Maria Thornton.

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William Harold Perry - 2/7/2005

The Washington Post article on the “Snow Riot” by Jefferson Morley in this Sunday’s (06 Feb 05) Washington Post Magazine, brings to our scrutiny a largely forgotten topic. However, I believe this article is using a superficial reading of history to besmirch the name of Francis Scott Key. Mr. Morley, who is a thorough professional and serious historian, kindly allowed me to have my say during the online discussion today on the Washington Post website. Most of what I have to say, I said there, and Mr. Morley responded promptly and frankly; about Key’s motives the two of us will continue to disagree. I will not repeat my entire argument here, but I will include the heart of it. Be forewarned, Key is my ancestor, so I must confess a bias in his favor.

It is my contention that Key’s motives in the affair described were moral, although I do not agree with some of the actions he took. I think Mr. Morley overlooks or undervalues some important aspects of Key’s life that need to be taken into account in order to judge his motives. Many of Key’s actions showed compassion for the plight of blacks, both free and slave. Key acted as defense counsel for the African men and women who fought for their freedom after the slaver Antelope was captured by a US revenue cutter in 1820, 19 years before the Amistad incident. Key served as counsel to numerous blacks seeking their emancipation in the US courts, and often won. Key entered the Amistad courtroom two years before his death to give the defense counsel, John Quincy Adams, advice on how to obtain the liberty of those abused black men. The American Colonization Society, whose eventual motives Morley rightly derides, was originally benevolent in intent, albeit misguided. Yet Key, who was among the Society’s founders, was instrumental in getting it to raise over $11,000 to enable the survivors of The Antelope to return to Africa.

My contention is that Key was motivated to work for the rights of individuals, black or white, as opposed to races. Perhaps Key thought the white race was superior to the black race, perhaps not, but Key’s actions are what was important. When I was a civil rights worker in Mississippi in the mid-1960s, one of the first things Bill Higgs and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party decided was that we were not going to try to end prejudice, but rather end discrimination. I believe Key understood this in his heart, and acted accordingly. But the America of the 1830s was not the America of the 1960s. What we did in Mississippi in 1965 could not have been done in Washington in 1836.

It is easy to read the transcript of Key’s words at the Crandall trial, about which Mr. Morley’s article has much to say, and misconstrue them, as many have done. Orations, once reduced to print, lose much of their nuance. For instance, I have often seen quoted as evidence of Key’s racism something he said at that trial, “The ‘great moral and political evil’ of which I speak, is supposed to be slavery--but is it not plainly the whole coloured race?” That sounds pretty damning, until you read more closely and realize that Key was using a rhetorical technique called “reduction ad absurdum.” If one misses that nuance, one is also likely to miss the soul searching anguish in which Key, speaking of himself in the third person, describes his deepest held beliefs concerning slavery and freedom:

“His own experience and observation (he said) had greatly changed his opinions and feelings on this subject. In the course of his professional life he had (as their Honors on the bench well knew) been the common advocate of the petitioners for freedom in our courts. He had tried no causes with more zeal and earnestness. He had considered every such cause as one on which all the worldly weal or woe of a fellow creature depended, and never was his success in any contests so exulting as when, on these occasions, he had stood forth as the advocate of the oppressed, ‘The poor his client, and Heaven's smile his fee.’

“But an experience of thirty five years had abated much of his ardour--for he had seen that much the greatest number of those in whose emancipation he had been instrumental, had been far from finding in the result the happiness he had expected. Instead of the blessings that he had believed were thus to be conferred upon them, the subsequent history of those persons had showed him that in most cases (there were a few consoling exceptions) the change of their condition had produced for them nothing but evil.

“Still he was far from being cold and indifferent on the subject. He could not rejoice, as he once did, when freedom was conferred upon those to whom he knew it would be a most perilous gift, and who would be placed in situations in which its best privileges and enjoyments would be denied to them. But he did rejoice when he saw it given under circumstances that justified the hope that it would be a real blessing and not a dangerous mockery:…”

Those who knew Key, which included virtually everyone in that court room, knew Key spoke of himself. Maybe Key’s notion of the “colonization solution” as wrongheaded. Maybe the case against Crandall was without merit. But to imply, as this Post article does, that Francis Scott Key was motivated by anything other than Christian charity and love of his country is a gross injustice, which I cannot leave un-rebuked.