The Riot That Changed America

Reporter Jefferson Morley re-creates the forgotten race riot of 1835 and discusses how it shaped American politics today.

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The summer of 1835 was pivotal in American history. Pro- and antislavery ideologies were already clashing around the country, particularly in Washington, D.C. But few know about the first race riot that shook the nation's young capital. In Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835, former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley uses firsthand accounts and public records to re-create the characters and the tensions that led to the event. Morley recently spoke to U.S. News about the significance of the race riot and how he says it has shaped American politics today. Excerpts:

What would surprise readers most about this period?

I think the fact that more than half the black people in Washington were free 25 years before the Civil War. And that's really what this book reveals, how the struggle against slavery began in a thriving black community of Washington, D.C.

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Did the tensions in Washington contribute to the Civil War?

The ideological struggle that leads to the Civil War starts in this period. I think we focus too much on what happened in 1860. To me, it's more like a 30-year conflict that had five years of armed conflict at the end of it.

Was Washington's geographic location a factor?

This is a key piece of the background. When the Founding Fathers were trying to figure out where the capital would go, they decided that it would not be the capital of any state, so the idea was to create a federal district. Originally that federal district was going to be on the Susquehanna River, dividing Pennsylvania from Maryland. But for the Southerners, that was worrisome because Pennsylvania had abolished slavery for most people by 1800 and the southerners in Congress did not want to have a capital on free territory that suggested that there was something wrong with the institution of slavery. So they pushed Alexander Hamilton to move the capital site farther south, cutting a federal district out of Maryland and Virginia, where slavery was legal. For the Southerners this preserved the legitimacy of slavery in the national capital, [which] was essential to the legitimacy of slavery nationwide. What the abolitionists brought to Washington in the 1830s was not, Let's abolish slavery everywhere; they were saying, Let's abolish it in the District. And the Southerners understood how important that was symbolically to the rest of the nation.

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What set off the first race riot in D.C.?

A combination of things. There were fears of a slave rebellion that summer. The newspapers in July 1835 were filled with stories about a possible slave uprising in Mississippi. Second, the antislavery forces were pushing their agenda very hard and mailing antislavery material to everybody in Washington. And that was unprecedented, even shocking, that slavery was even written about and described. And then there was this story that went around in Washington that Arthur Bowen, an 18-year-old slave boy, had attacked his mistress in her bedroom with an axe. A shocking crime that fed into these fears of abolitionists [and] fears of a slave rebellion, and the whites of the city erupted in violence to put down the abolitionists and the free blacks and to defend slavery.

Why is this event largely unknown?

I think there was a lot of shame attached to it. Schools and churches were trashed. And then, you know, we don't care to remember, as Americans, how our politics were shaped in formative ways by slavery. And so we paper that over and we honor Francis Scott Key as the father of "The Star-Spangled Banner," but we don't mention that he was a slave owner and a vigilant defender of slavery and a man who sought to suppress the antislavery movement.

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What was Key's role in this story?

Key, in the mid-1830s, had long been famous as the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner." And he's a politically ambitious man and loyal to President Andrew Jackson. Jackson rewards him with the job of district attorney for the city of Washington. And the reason Jackson put him in there was to put down the antislavery movement and to enforce the legality of slavery in the District of Columbia.