It turns out that Francis Scott Key -- the author of "land of the free and the home of the brave" -- was an opponent of free speech and an advocate of white supremacy.
Jefferson Morley, whose article, The 'Snow Riot', about Key's role in Washington first race riot in 1835 appears in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, Feb. 7, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Jefferson Morley: Welcome everyone. It looks like we will have a very interest discussion today.
The best way to start, I think, will be to hear from a reader who says he is a descendant of Francis Scott Key.
Snow Job on "The Snow Riot"
The Washington Post should be ashamed of the article on the "Snow Riot" in this Sunday's Washington Post Magazine. The article seems to be trying to make a "black history moment" by using a superficial reading of history to besmirch the name of Francis Scott Key. The author uses a selective reading of the facts of the incident to compile a biased, circumstantial case that Key was a racist and denier of freedom of speech. I am surprised that the author did not use the circumstance that Justice Roger B. Taney (the dread judge in the Dred Scott decision) was married to Key's sister to further attack Key. Surely the fact that, as young men, Key and Taney studied law together and even opened a law office together should have weighed against Key. What about the fact the Key died less than 100 yards from the Taney statue in Baltimore? Doesn't that weigh against Key?
But, I suppose if you include all the facts, you would also have to include Key's acting as defense counsel for the African men and women who fought for their freedom after the slaver The Antelope was captured by a U.S. revenue cutter in 1820, 19 years before the Amistad incident. And I suppose you would have to overlook all the cases when Key served as counsel to blacks seeking their emancipation in the U.S. courts, and often won. And I suppose that it is easy to overlook Key's entry into 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 poor black men. Maybe if Spielberg had an actor playing Key and whispering into Anthony Hopkins' ear, the "Snow Riot" article might never have been written. Perhaps the effort of the author to dismiss Key's anti-slavery feelings by ascribing them to the dubious American Colonization Society might not sound too damning if the fact were made known that that same society raised over $11,000 to enable the survivors of The Antelope to return to Africa.
To list all the facts of Key's life which show his concern with righting the evils of slavery in a Christian and just way would exceed the length of The Post article several fold. And as to the free-speech issue, the reason that Reuben Crandall was brought to trial was for preaching the violent overthrow of the U.S. Government. Try getting up in public and advocating that today and see what it gets you. Key was trying to avoid the blood bath that putting Abolitionist rhetoric into practice could, and occasionally did, bring about. In his prosecution of the Crandall case, Key wanted to preserve the nation and the lives of all men.
It is easy to read the transcript of Key's words at the Crandall trial and misconstrue them, as many have done. Orations, once reduced to print, lose much of their nuance. However, I will end this protest with a quote from Key's speech at that trial. In this quote Key is speaking of himself, in the third person, and about 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, his Great-Great Grandson, cannot leave un-rebuked.
Jefferson Morley: Thank you Herndon.
Your quotations, I think, give readers an even better sense than my article of Key's views on freedom of speech and emancipation. The details of his work on behalf of the Colonization Socity are also useful. I did not make a big deal of Key's close friendship with Roger Taney because Taney's appointment to the Supreme Court and the Dred Scott decision occurred after the Snow riot. Therefore Taney's career was irrelevant to my story.
Readers should know that most free blacks in Washington opposed the efforts of Key and others to get them to move back to Africa. Rev. John F. Cook, target of the mob in August 1835, was particularly eloquent on the point.
New York, N.Y.:
That was a very interesting read -- great article. Do you know what happened to Arthur Bowen after he left Washington?
Jefferson Morley: A lot of people are asking this question.
Such as ....
"Arthur Bowen left Washington and embarked on his future in the land of the free and the home of the brave."
What was that future?
Jefferson Morley: and also ....
Thoroughly enjoyed the essay but please don't leave us hanging... what became of Authur Bowen?
Jefferson Morley: And one more ...
Thank you for the excellent article. What became of Arthur Bowen later in life? Was he around for the Civil War and the abolition of slavery?
Jefferson Morley: Unfortunately, I do not know a lot about what happened to Arthur Bowen. I do know that two years later, in 1838, he wrote a letter to Anna Maria Thornton complaining about the treatment he was receiving at the hands of his new owner, Richard Stockton, a friend of President Jackson's and a naval officer. Anna wrote about his plea in her diary and recorded that she would try to help him.
So we know that Anna and Arthur remained on good terms. But how Anna replied is unknown. I have no further trace of Arthur. He does not, for example, show up on the list of Negroes emancipated in 1862. He would have been 45 at that time, if he was still alive.
Whatever happened to Bowen after he was pardoned? Do any of his descendants have any comments to this article.
I found the story fascinating and scary at the same time.
Jefferson Morley: I have always looked for descendants of Arthur Bowen but haven't found any. If anyone out there knows people named Bowen in the Washington area who know something about their family history, please tell them I would love to hear from them.
You can email me at: email@example.com
The history part was very interesting, but there was no link given to defend your arguments about Francis Scott Key. You use the absence of any documentation to state "He must not have been proud of what he did." Any high-school level kid would get their knuckles rapped for this one.
The riots and events surrounding them are enough of a story. Trying to make it into some sort of diatribe against Mr. Key, without ANY back-up documentation in the entire article, is insulting to him and his legacy.
Jefferson Morley: You are wee bit defensive. My article hardly qualifies as a diatribe. Most of it is devoted to a factual account of the events of 1835 in which Key was deeply involved.
I did not say that Key "must not have been proud." I wrote,
Key "seems not to have been proud," a more qualified judgment.
The assertion that there isn't "any back-up documentation" in the article is silly and factually unfounded. Any reader who is interested in seeing a footnoted version of the article should send me an email with you mailing address.
I think you miss my point. Key did not favor slavery, but he could see that emancipating slaves into racist America was not benefitting them. His ideal of colonization may have been wrongheaded, but it was not cold hearted. He really cared about slaves and blacks as men.
Jefferson Morley: Mr. Key's family is entitled to their view.
Arthur Bowen and Reuben Crandall may have had a different view of his benevolence. So might other readers.
as a long time admirer of William Thornton and Anna, I admire your thorough article. They typify the Capitol Gang in that they made the city run and are buried in the Congressional Cemetery... near J. Edgar Hoover. You do not identify Ben Perley.
Jefferson Morley: In fact, I identify Ben Perley as a Washington editor but he is most famous and most notable for his engaging two volume memoir of Washington in the 19th century, "Perley's Reminiscences." Anybody interested in this period of the capital's history has to read Ben Perley.
Hello, My dad is named William Thornton, Jr. and we have
relatives living here in Washinton D.C. I am wondering if
you have any advice on how to research the family history.
Since we are descended of slaves, I am curious to learn if
there is any link between my family and this story.
Jefferson Morley: That is an interesting question. I doubt there is a connection because no slaves in the Thornton household had the name "Thornton."
There was Maria Bowen, her son Arthur and another man named George Graham.
I think the Library of Congress information desk has some basic instructions about how to do family history research. That's probably the best place to start.
At the time of these 1835 incidents, what was Key's brother-in-law and law partner, and future Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney doing and did he ever express an opinion on the incidents? I realize the two men must have been in different places -- Key in D.C. and Taney back in Frederick.
Jefferson Morley: I could not find Taney's reaction to the Snow Riot. It would be interesting to know--and to know if he and Key talked about it.
At the end of your article, when you mentioned other tragedies that affected Francis Scott Key, I am surprised that you did not mention the murder of his other son Philip Barton Key by Congressman and future Civil War General Dan Sickles when Sickles caught Philip having an affair with his wife. I imagine the father was dead by that time, but still it was a tragedy to him because of the further limitation of his descendants (and also a fascinating bit of history!)
Jefferson Morley: The death of Philip Barton Key was another tragedy for the key family but it happened some sixteen years after Francis Scott Key's death in January 1843. That's why I did not mention it.
There's no question but that Key was a racist, and an arrogant, quasi-dictatorial jerk, like most petty bureaucrats before and since. But a bit of additional historical context might have helped polish your story a bit.
During the time of the Snow Riot, the Metropolitan police force did in fact exist -- it was a squad of fewer than 300 men, who reported to a Commissioner appointed jointly by the Secretaries of War, Navy and the Interior. It had relatively limited authority, and many of its personnel were detailed to guard the White House and Capitol grounds. Marines, as you correctly noted, also held a variety of security postings around central Washington and the Capitol (then just the main building and two small adjacent structures).
The sole general civil law officer of the District was its Federal marshal -- and, at that time, the Marshal's office consisted of the lone Marshal and a single deputy.
I don't pretend that Key was any angel -- he clearly wasn't -- but Key had relatively few options available to limit and contain the Mechanics; almost any of the available options, but for the mobilization of militia or troops, would have played directly into their hands.
What Key did (indeed, who Key was) was manifestly unjust. But, had he selected other options, enormous bloodshed would have ensued.
Jefferson Morley: The armed men who you talk about were actually not city policemen. The Washington city directory of 1834 lists all of the city constables by the wards in which they worked. There were a total of ten of them. Two of them, Madison Jeffers and William Robertson were very active during the Snow riot disturbances.
You are absolutely correct that Key had few options for restoring order.
One interesting point, sure to provoke controversy today, is the paucity of firearms during the Snow Riot. One of the mechanics briefly wielded a stolen shotgun during the occupation of Beverly Snow's Epicurean Eating House and he was quickly disarmed and arrested.
First of all, great job! The piece was well-written and masterfully reported. It taught me a lot. What was the impetus for the story?
Jefferson Morley: A few years ago, I saw a mention of the Snow riot and that Key was District Attorney at the time. I had never heard the latter fact and found nothing about it in historical accounts of Key's life. The question that sprang to mind was: How did this lyricist of the American way respond to the ugly reality of a race riot? The story is my effort to answer that question.
No question -- just brief comment.
Francis Scott Key was related (by marriage?) to Roger Taney, the worst Supreme Court justice in American history and author of the Dred Scott decision.
Jefferson Morley: Yes.
Francis Scott Key and Roger Taney were brother's in law and good friends. Taney was appointed to the Supreme Court in the years after the Snow Riot (1837 or 1838, I think) and the Dred Scott decision came many years after that.
Montgomery Village, Md.:
Hello, I've read transcripts of these forums before but have never submitted a question.
In light of this new information about Francis Scott Key, how do you think the Star Spangled Banner will be perceived now and in the future? Do you think it is possible to separate the sentiment of the verses from Francis Scott Key's personal opinions?
How does this relate to modern day musicians/songwriters?
Jefferson Morley: I think that the article provides people with a more realistic picture of Francis Scott Key. That might change how people think of the "Star Spangled Banner." I hope so.
What is apparent is that the man who wrote the line "land of the free and home of the brave" did not think that Americans of African descent belonged in the picture. He had a conception of American justice and rights very different than we have today.
And this is not only evident in hindsight. There were people who pointed out the inconsistency of Key's views a the time. One anti-slavery publication in 1836 included pictures of slave jails in Washington under the headline "Land of the Free, Home of the Oppressed."
That must have stung Key.
Thank you for a thought-provoking, disturbing,
and well-written article.
As a historian, I have two comments to add. First,
the fact that Arthur Bowen was a "mulatto" does
not mean that his father was a white man; it simply
means that his "racial" ancestry was obviously
mixed. The French and the Spanish in the
Americas had precise categories for designating
the degree of (black) ancestry, but their terms'
English equivalents -- quadroon, octoroon -- were
seldom used in the U.S. except in parts of the
Lower South. Instead, "mulatto" -- technically the
term for someone half black and half white --
became the catch-all phrase in the 19th-century
U.S. for anyone of mixed-race ancestry. So
Bowen might have had one parent of each "race,"
yes, but it's equally likely that one or more parents
were themselves "mixed."
The other point is to remind us all how awfully
ordinary Key's response to the Bowen/Crandall/Mechanics situation was. There was, alas,
nothing particularly surprising for me in this story:
a majority of whites throughout the nation in 1835-
36 would have accepted Key's viewpoints
unquestioningly and thought his actions (if not the
details of the legal case he made of them) just
In that sense, your story didn't quite live up to its
billing about Key's perfidy. He wasn't especially
racist or repressive by the standards of his day;
quite the contrary.
Thank God, though, he's a disgrace to ours.
Now, for historical as well as musical and lyrics
reasons, can we please get the National Anthem
changed to "America the Beautiful," which asks
God to keep mending our national flaws and lead
us to a still-unrealized "brotherhood, and liberty in
Jefferson Morley: Thanks for your comments.
Thank you for a great article. I think it is too bad it is hard to find history about D.C. not tied to the usual topics -- politics, presidents, etc. So much of D.C. is fascinating -- the history of the Foggy Bottom District, Swamp Poodle and, of course, the Snow Riots. Do you think you or other writers from The Post will continue to write articles such as these?
Jefferson Morley: If I find another story this good, I guarantee I will write it. I hope other writers take up DC history as well.
Tysons Corner, Va.:
This is typical PC-based racial-ideological stuff that The Post Magazine relentlessly focuses on -- trying to make famous white people in the distant past look bad, without taking historical context into account. Why don't you just skip Francis Scott Key and write about how Abraham Lincoln (who actually considered blacks inferior to whites) wanted to colonize blacks in Africa after the Civil War (but his reputation as the great emancipator survived intact because of the assassin's bullet). Or why don't you write about how General Robert E. Lee was willing to use black slaves as soldiers at the end of the Civil War and even give them their freedom if they served. But you wouldn't talk about that because it wouldn't be PC to say good things about a Confederate hero.
Jefferson Morley: Hey Tysons Corner,
The Post magazine does not specialize in articles trying to make famous white people look bad--unless you think Dave Barry's column serves that purpose. :-)
Instead of complaining about all the articles I didn't write (about Abe Lincoln's racism; about the alleged heroism of Robert E. Lee) why don't we discuss the article that I did write?
I promise my answer won't be "politically correct."
One small reference in your article fascinated me. It is seldom mentioned that slaves actually lived in the White House. (Right across the street from the Thornton household and Arthur Bowen.) Is there any history of them? I remember in the John Adams biography by David McCoullough, I read that Abigail Adams was depressed to see the slave labor in Washington around the White House. How many presidents were slave owners?
Jefferson Morley: One of the histories of the White House talks a good deal about Andrew Jackson's slaves. He brought them to Washington upon his election in 1828 and proceeded to lay off much the white paid staff--a nice illustration of how slavery undercut the white working classs in Washington.
As far I can tell none of the names of Jackson's slaves are known.
Good illustration of heros having clay feet!
But going to the British command ship alone in a rowboat to attempt to secure the release of a friend whose crime was to treat American soldiers along with British for injuries was a courageous thing to do, regardless of political baggage -- the same as most in his state and generation carried.
And his description in verse of the defining battle is truly powerful (even if we do rarely sing anything beyond the question mark at the end of verse 1).
Jefferson Morley: As I noted in the article, Key was an able and honest man. He was a public servant in the best sense of the word and did many admirable things in his life.
I suppose it is hard to imagine in this day when no good deed goes unboasted, but Christians were once humble. They did not brag about doing Christian deeds.
Key cared nothing for the race of a person. The only thing he cared about was each person's spiritual and physical welfare, in that order. However, Key was not blind to the racial realities of his day.
If you think the Abolitionists that preached violent slave insurrection cared about the slaves at all, you are very naive. The rabid Abolitionists of that era were mainly demagogues who wanted political power.
You may find it hard to believe, but Key sincerely thought freed slaves would enjoy the benefits of freedom more in a free country in Africa than in racist, ante-bellum America.
Jefferson Morley: More from the Key family!
With all due respect, Key did care about a person's race. Americans of African descent were, in his view, inferior to white people. He believed that free black people had no place in America and sought to send them all to Africa. His efforts to do so were a resounding failure because people of color rejected his premise.
I don't find it hard to believe that Key thought freed slaves would enjoy the benefits of freedom more in Africa than in America. I do find it hard to believe that anybody still believes this today. But you are entitled to your opinion.
Thanks for sharing the Key family perspective.
Just curious: What were the other nationalities and levels of sobriety of the "mostly Irish, mostly drunk" mob that descended on the jail at Judiciary Square?
Jefferson Morley: The Mechanics seem to have been a collection of workers imported from Dublin and Langford Ireland. There were also German and Scottish workers in this community, though in far smaller numbers. History does not record their levels of sobriety. History does disclose that drunkeneness was rampant among the city's slaves and free Negroes.
Stockton a naval officer sounds familiar. I think it is the name on the stone as the eventual owner of the houses that Thornton was building for Washington on Capitol Hill when George died. Probably cannot verify now because that site may be on top of the visitors' center!
Jefferson Morley: Stockon was Richard Stockton, namesake of the California city and Naval hero. It would not surprise me if he had been a friend of William Thornton's.
Yes, you identify Perley as a "Washington editor" but editor of... what?
Jefferson Morley: He was editor of something called the Washington Directory.
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.:
Mr. Morley: I found your article very interesting, if not a little troubling. The early 1800s truly are a world most of us cannot even begin to imagine. I am quite interested in learning more about the history of this city, which I have adopted as my home over the past decade. Is your article the precursor of a longer academic work or a book, perhaps? If not, do you have any recommended reading on D.C. history?
Jefferson Morley: If you are interested in the period, you may enjoy Ben Perley's "Perley's Reminiscences." I especially enjoyed "Twelve Years a Slave," by Solomon Nothup, the best-selling account of a free black man from Upstate New York who was kidnapped in Washington in 1841. There is a book called "Free Negroes of Washington" that is somewhat dry but very interesting in its data.
Cleveland Park. Washington, D.C.:
Interesting article but I abhor your suggestion that Thornton fathered Arthur. Thornton was a Quaker and a major D.C. mover and shaker of the American Colonization Society. Part of the genteel poverty experienced by Anna Maria Thornton came about because her husband left his estate to the ACS; she had a life trust -- meaning that there were restrictions on what she could do.
Watch the Ben Perle memoir, it is riddled with errors.
Jefferson Morley: You touch on a sensitive point so I'm glad for the chance to reiterate my views.
Was William Thornton Arthur Bowen's father?
It would not be surprising if he was. As I stated explicitly in the article, there is no evidence for such a conclusion.
Silver Spring, Md.:
You state in your article that the Feb. 1836 letter from Mrs. Thornton to President Jackson is the National Archives at College Park. Aren't Andrew Jackson's papers located in Tennesesee?
Jefferson Morley: That particular letter is found in the Archives files on presidential pardons.
Jackson's papers are indeed located in Tennesee.
Enjoyed the story, a new one to me. I'm a D.C. Tour guide and I love telling the story about FS Key's son Philip Barton, who was shot and killed in Lafeyette Park in 1859 by Congressman Sickles for PB Key having an affair with Sickles wife. The Congressman was found innocent "by temporary abberation of the mind," and went on to raise a Regiment in the Civil War. Lost his leg at Gettysburg. It's "enshrined " still at Walter Reed Museum.
Jefferson Morley: Thanks
One small error about the Prudence Crandall case. The Connecticut legislature did not pass a law forbidding the education of black children. However, it is bad enough, but it forbids educating children of color who were not residents of the state without the permission of the townspeople where the instruction is to take place. In an age that allowed fugitive slave bounty hunters to roam at will, it made a certain amount of sense, even though it was somewhat cowardly.
Jefferson Morley: I did not say that the Connecticut legislature passed law forbidding the education of black children. They passed a law forbidding intergration of schools, a different matter.
Anna Maria copied William Thornton's letters so that he would have them and now we have them. Volume One of those papers has been published by CM Harris out of the University of Virginia Press in 1995 and contains much interesting Washingtonia. It ends with 1802 and he lived and wrote until 1828. Will we see a volume Two?
Jefferson Morley: Good question. I will look into this.
Your detractors need to appreciate that although the moral law does not change, times do. Thornton and the gracious Anna Maria were Quakers and although he advocated the settlement in Africa and even wanted to buy Puerto Rico to settle them, they owned slaves in Maryland and the District as well as in the family sugar plantations. The Philadelphia Quakers fought for our freedom in the Revolution. Certainly many mulattos owned slaves and I expect so did many freed slaves!
Jefferson Morley: Thanks for your useful perspective.
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.:
Colonization was an attempted solution to the problem of slavery. Don't impose a 21st Century perspective on the past. Generalizing that all colonizationists were racists shows an incredible lack of historical sensitivity. But then a real historian wouldn't suggest that all mulattos were fathered by white owners. Shame on you.
Jefferson Morley: Hmm, I could respond that "Saddam Hussein's government was an attempted solution to the problem of Iraqi people wanting to be free." and say, "Don't impose a 21st century perspective on the past." But that would make me sound like an apologist.
I didn't say generalize that "all colonizationists were racist." I only wrote about one colonization in my article, Francis Scott Key and I never applied the label "racist" to him. I did say he was a defender of white supremacy. His own words, accurately reported, confirm the fact.
I did not suggest or say or imply that "all mulattos were fathered by white owners." I said it was possible that the mulatto Arthur Bowen could have been fathered by William Thornton.
What am I supposed to be ashamed of?
Just so you will understand that racism is not alive in this branch of the Key family, I was a civil rights worker in Mississippi in the mid-60s. We were registering sharecroppers against the will of the state. I was shot at more in Mississippi than I was in Viet Nam. I am not defending his ideas, just his sincerity.
Jefferson Morley: It was not my intention to cast aspersions on any of Key's relatives. I do not think that Francis Scott Key's relatives have inherited his sins. I know from my own family that the sins of the father (or grandfather or great-grandfather) should not be visited on the living.
Your actions in Mississippi and Vietnam sound like they deserve our admiration. If so, nothing in my article should be construed by you or anyone else as denigrating those actions.
Jefferson Morley: We are out of time.
If anybody wants to share information about the Francis Scott Key, the Snow Riot, Beverly Snow, Arthur Bowen, William or Anna Thornton, or John F. Cook, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Francis Scott Key" in the subject line.
I look forward to continuing this discussion.