Mention Francis Scott Key, and the images likely to come to mind -- rockets' red glare, bombs bursting in air -- are symbols of America's independence.
Yet in "Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835," Key is revealed to be an ambitious, slave-holding federal prosecutor at the center of a race riot that struck the first political blow against American slavery. The man who found fame, fortune and access to President Andrew Jackson's White House after penning a song about freedom ultimately found himself on the wrong side of the debate over the rights of Africans brought here in bondage.
Author Jefferson Morley weaves the lives of Key and two others -- Anna Maria Thornton, a widowed society maven who struggled to control a restless, educated teenage slave named Arthur; and Beverly Snow, a freeman who was skilled, self-confident and audacious enough to best Washington restaurateurs at their own game.
Although the city of Washington was the birthplace of the young nation's laws, lawlessness was never far from the surface -- particularly after Arthur, drunk and filled with a burning desire for his own freedom, burst into his mistress' bedroom holding an ax. That touched off a series of events that forced Key to define his beliefs about liberty, pushed Thornton to use her dwindling influence to save a black boy who probably was her stepson, and destroyed Snow's confidence in the new nation's promise of equality for all.
The city is perhaps the most important character in the book; in the early 1800s it was a rough-and-tumble place where livestock grazed (and was slaughtered) just yards from where laws were made; "bawdy houses" were part of the local economy; duels to the death were commonplace, and free and enslaved African-Americans mingled on the hard-packed dirt streets within sight of the rising Capitol dome.
The author did his homework and then some, building his elegant, readable narrative with copious help from diaries, newspaper accounts, official documents and weather reports dating back more than 170 years. Anyone familiar with the nation's complex racial history can anticipate the events that form the book's climax: the fury against Arthur for what everyone believed was an attack on a white woman; the misdirected anger of working-class whites toward the erudite, successful Snow, and Key's piety and arrogance overwhelming any ability to see his own hypocrisy.
"Snow-Storm in August" also touches on themes still relevant today: unresolved racial tensions, simmering resentment over economic disparity, influence peddling among the powerful, and the red-blue divide between conservatives and progressives over whether human property -- and their descendants -- deserve the full benefits of the new nation's famously stated ideals.
"This general set of [conflicts] still animates American conservatism against the country's liberal tendencies," Morley writes. With the lawyer/lyricist's central role in the Snow-Storm riots of 1835, Morley writes, "Francis Scott Key argued the red agenda of his day."
Joseph Williams is a journalist in Washington, D.C.