On Relevance and Snow-Storm in August

Posted on July 6, 2012 under book review

History doesn’t have to have a news peg. Our historical work can be important, compelling, moving, and relevant without making thumpingly explicit connections to today’s news cycle.  Both historical characters and events and our contemporary readers are ill-served by extravagant pleading for relevance.  I’m not saying, of course, that journalists shouldn’t be writing history; on the contrary,  I insist on public history as a big tent where everyone doing the work is welcome, including journalists and the writers of popular history books.  But sometimes a journalistic lens can distort the real meaning of the story.

The newly released Snow-Storm in August, by Jefferson Morley, seems to me to encapsulate much of the good, as well as the problematic, about telling history in a newsy way.

The book is about the 1835 race riots in Washington, DC and the criminal trials, prosecuted by Francis Scott Key, that followed.   It  is an interesting story interestingly told, cutting between several major viewpoint characters including Key, Anna Thornton (an alleged assault on whom was an origin of the riots), abolitionist Reuben Crandall, who was charged with inciting the riot by distributing anti-slavery pamphlets, and Beverly Snow, whose restaurant was destroyed in the riot.  It’s very useful to history work to have big splashy popular history books with actual marketing budgets (for example, I received an ARC from the publishers) that not only illuminate lesser-known incidents in American history but do it from a cultural history and African-American history lens, not just a political history perspective.

Given the ongoing War of 1812 commemorations and the concomitant anthem discussions, it was a delight to see a non-hagiographic portrait of Key, who is portrayed as a cranky and dogmatic political animal with a troubled family life.

Snow, a freed African-American restauranteur, is the real hero of the story.  He started an “epicurean” restaurant, with menu, individual tables, fancy food, a multiracial clientele, and many of the features of contemporary restaurants.  If only he had left more of a paper trail!  Morley reads deeply into Snow’s newspaper advertisements and few surviving letters (from jail, where he was held for his own protection, and from Toronto, where he eventually settled.)  We learn a good deal about Jacksonian-era food culture.

So, a little-told story about antebellum American racial politics.  Sounds great, yes?  But it can’t just be that—it has to be the riot that uncovered deep-seated racial tensions! the trials that would change the nation!  This kind of hyperbole is par for the course by now, and props to Morley for not including this kind of language in his subtitle (it’s the descriptive “Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835.”)

But what drove me crazy was at the very end of the book, where Morley claims that because there was political polarization in 1836, it is the same political polarization we see today, specifically the (questionably accurate, even for today) “red” and “blue” divisions.  Contemporary liberals are just like 1830s abolitionists, he says, advocates of “multiracial citizenship” and limitable property rights, and contemporary conservatives, just like the mainstream politicos of the 1830s, advocate for property rights and more limited citizenship,  though he generously admits that “conservatives no longer believe in slavery.”  Is he really saying that Francis Scott Key’s politics (he was a pal of Jackson and fan of  African repatriation) are analogous to those of contemporary conservatives?  Readers deserve more than this ahistorical and simplistic collapse of the past into the present.  I wish Snow-Storm in August had focused more on the fascinating story and less on pegging the story to contemporary politics.

4 Comments on “On Relevance and Snow-Storm in August”

  1. Yes, Suzanne I really am saying that the conservatives of the 1830s bear some resemblance to the conservatives of today. Specifically, they share conservative principles favoring maximal property rights, narrower citizenship rights and narrower free speech rights. The issues where these principles are contested have changed but the principles themselves have not.

    So I don’t think it is ahistoric to say that Francis Scott Key would be right at home in today’s Republican party. Rather I think it is historical fact that Key is part of the American conservative tradition.

    1. I guess I would say the political positions are not stable. We no longer talk debate the constitutionality of slavery the way Key and his contemporaries. But I think the philosophical positions are stable. Position #1: what are the individual’s property rights? Then as now you had a spectrum from a maximal definition from conservative thinkers to a much narrow definition favored by liberals. For conservatives the maximal definition of property rights included the right to own property in people. For anti-slavery liberals there was no such thing as property in people, therefore the individual’s property rights were more circumscribed by social need for equality. Today the issue is marginal tax rates but the definition debate is much the same. The conservative position is that a maximal definition of property rights should apply therefore marginal tax rates should be cut; for liberals the individuals’ right to keep his/her money is circumscribed by the need for equality. This position seems to me to be “transhistorical,” ie consistent across historical time periods. Its a defining tradition of Amercan conservativism.

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