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The 'Snow Riot'

In 1835 Washington discovered Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem, had a thing or two to learn about freedom

By Jefferson Morley
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page W14

THE LAMPLIGHTER CAME AROUND AT DUSK. With his long flaming pole poked skyward, he sparked the bowls of oil atop the fluted posts around Lafayette Square. In the shadowy light, a Mr. Watson, walking home at around 11 o'clock on Tuesday evening, August 4, 1835, encountered Arthur Bowen, an 18-year-old slave in the house of Mrs. Anna Maria Thornton, one of the capital's finest ladies. As Watson would later say, Arthur was "much intoxicated."

The sight of Arthur Bowen drunk on whiskey was not uncommon around Washington City during the long, hot summer of 1835. Anna Thornton had arranged to hire him out, but would later say he had been somewhat spoiled and refused to take orders from any woman.

Anna Maria Thornton as painted by her friend Gilbert Stuart in 1804. In August 1835 Thornton was reportedly assaulted by a young ax-wielding Negro slave in her F Street home in August 1835. The incident set off Washington's first race riot. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)

As Anna would note in her diary, Arthur grew fond of drinking "ardent spirits" while befriending free Negroes in a debating society who talked with him about slavery, the Constitution and his rights as a human being.

As Arthur loitered in Lafayette Square that night, reminders of his plight were all around. Across the way, the president's house was dark because Andrew Jackson was away. His slaves were sleeping in bedrooms on the second floor and in the attic. On another side of the square, the bland facade of one of the rowhouses masked a slave pen -- a place where slave traders gathered their human cargo to be shipped south from the docks of Georgetown.

Arthur's problem was less his present circumstances, which were about as comfortable as any enslaved young African in America could hope for. His problem was his dismal and uncertain future. In the debating society, organized by the Rev. John F. Cook, an energetic free Negro who ran a church and school at 14th and H streets, Arthur had learned that whatever liberty he had could vanish at a white man's whim.

Arthur went home. Inside the Thornton house, on F Street between 13th and 14th, he stumbled across an ax left on the basement stairwell. At least, that is what Anna would write in a letter months later. She concluded that Arthur had picked it up thinking to put it in its place. In the first-floor hallway, he lifted the latch to the bedroom, where his mother, Anna and her aged mother slept, and entered.

Arthur would later say that he did not remember what happened that night. Anna would never forget it.

According to Anna's account, Arthur stood in the doorway, thoroughly inebriated, with the ax in the crook of his arm. Anna, who was sleeping in the bed to his left, woke up with a start. Surprised and terrified by Arthur's extraordinary entrance, she got up wordlessly. She passed around the small table in the center of the room, not more than a step away from the young man and the ax. He just kept staring straight ahead. She hastened out the door at the far end of the room to the front parlor and fled to get help.

In the bed on the far side of the room was his mother, Maria Bowen, the longtime slave and personal servant of Anna. Maria awoke. She rushed at Arthur in her bedclothes.

"Get out, get out," she shouted, according to a witness quoted in a newspaper.

Maria snatched the ax from her son and shoved him down the passage to the back of the house, pushed him out and locked the door behind him. Anna came running back into the house with two neighbors -- Henry Huntt, the president's physician, and Walter Gibson, an attorney who lived in Huntt's house.

"I've got him out," Maria gasped. "He's crazy."

Outside the house, Arthur was furious about being locked out -- and about being a slave. He picked up a scrub brush and banged on the door.

"I've got just as much right to freedom as you," he shouted, according to the four fearful people listening on the other side of the door.

After more shouting, Arthur backed away. He stumbled back through the garden into the alley and disappeared into the night.

The nation's capital was about to explode.

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.

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