In popular American history, the decades between the founding era and the Civil War are a sort of no-man’s land, largely glossed over if not ignored entirely. There are, of course, exceptions. Daniel Walker Howe explored the richness of the period in “What Hath God Wrought” and won the Pulitzer Prize for his trouble. Andrew Jackson commands a new volume with some regularity. Mostly, though, the era is treated as a dreary interregnum between those plucky patriots with powdered hair and the appalling carnage of the war over slavery.
In “Snow-Storm in August,” former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley fills in some of the blanks, assembling a portrait of Washington in the 1830s by exploring characters who inhabit the second tier of history or well below. The plunge beneath the surface of history exposes realities more true to daily experience than executive proclamations or speeches in Congress.
The book’s central motif is race, and the theme reverberates through a range of fascinating vignettes. Beverly Snow, an enterprising mulatto slave in Lynchburg, Va., is freed by his owners and reinvents himself as a leading restaurateur in the nation’s capital. Nat Turner’s bloody slave rising in Virginia triggers a nationwide spasm of fear. The American Colonization Society blindly pursues its mad scheme of shipping millions of freed slaves to Africa, or the Caribbean, or anywhere but the United States.