A sprightly social history of the convergence of pro- and anti-slavery agitators in the city of Washington during the explosive summer of 1835.
The forces that would soon tear the country apart in civil war were already at work in Washington as President Andrew Jackson was away on vacation. Salon Washington correspondent Morley (Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA, 2008, etc.) ably weaves the many strands together: An enterprising restaurateur of mixed race found that his success aroused the ire of resentful white patrons; an impressionable young slave hoping to educate and free himself ran afoul of his white mistress; a Yankee abolitionist newly arrived in town disseminated incendiary emancipationist literature; and the famous author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” serving as Jackson’s district attorney, pursued his job of punishing vice and enforcing slavery. By July 1835, news of a slave rebellion in Mississippi had already created unease among white Washingtonians. When the young slave Arthur Bowen broke into the bedroom of his mistress, Anna Thornton, in the middle of the night on August 5, inebriated and carrying an axe, the city exploded in rumor and fear. Bowen had apparently been influenced by the antislavery literature of New Yorker Reuben Crandall, whom Key subsequently arrested and charged with “attempting to excite an insurrection.” A mob formed, threatening to lynch Bowen, and destroying much property, including mixed-race entrepreneur Beverly Snow’s popular Epicurean Eating House. Despite Thornton’s attempts to protect her beloved slave, Bowen was convicted and sentenced to hang. Morley alternates the characters and scenes of action for a suspenseful tale, culminating in the court of law where Key upheld the country’s oppression of African-Americans and thereby helped shape the rancorous debate over slavery. His brother-in-law Roger Taney (whom Key supported to power) would become chief justice of the Supreme Court and author of the Dred Scott decision.
Elegant and nimble history of a series of events likely unknown to many readers.