- The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act by Alice Elizabeth Malavasic
The story of the infamous "F Street Mess" has been given an insightful book-length treatment. In the introduction to her book, Alice Elizabeth Malavasic recalls the pervasive belief among northern politicians of the existence of a slave power in national politics. From there, she argues that messmates and senators Robert M. T. Hunter and James M. Mason of Virginia, Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, and David Rice Atchison of Missouri indeed conspired together and formed the "most powerful bloc in the U.S. Senate" during the 1850s, most clearly revealed in their ability to repeal the Missouri Compromise as part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (8).
In her analysis, Malavasic echoes the interpretation of Roy F. Nichols to argue that the power of the messmates "derived from the group dynamic" (14). However, she innovates by introducing sociological conceptions of senatorial friendship from the work of Ross K. Baker and stakes her thesis on the power of these multifaceted friendships at work in the [End Page 151] mess. Ultimately, the friendships among the messmates provide "not only a lesson in the use of power but also an allegory on the fragility of democracy" (18).
The first three chapters lay the groundwork for the introduction and passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Chapter 1 considers the influence of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina on fellow southerners Hunter and Mason. The story unfolds chronologically from the era of one-party politics to the second party system, with the nullification crisis, the battle over the independent Treasury, and Calhoun's failed presidential bid in 1844 (managed by Hunter) receiving attention. The emphasis on Calhoun again dominates the story in chapter 2, though the introduction of Atchison and Butler hints at their future role in the mess.
Chapter 3 extends the story beyond 1850 through 1853, during which period Hunter, Mason, and Butler began their shared living arrangement. Malavasic contends that the "mess arrangement of these three men was typical of the earlier nineteenth century when a member's state, region and philosophical leanings, and not necessarily party affiliation, determined mess arrangements" (62). From there, she reviews the early history of the Nebraska Territory, the leading part played by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the political battles between Atchison and Thomas H. Benton of Missouri, and the numerous congressional logjams over the organization of the territory. Although Atchison (by then a member of the mess) originally disagreed with his messmates over the organization of the Nebraska Territory, Malavasic suggests that "the internal discomfort created by cognitive dissonance" eventually moved him into political alignment with Hunter, Mason, and Butler on this issue (76).
The next two chapters focus on the legislative achievements and personal relations of the members of the F Street Mess. Chapter 4 offers a retelling of the behind-the-scenes wrangling around the repeal of the Missouri Compromise as part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, including the parts played by the members of the F Street Mess, Representative Philip Phillips of Alabama, Senator Archibald Dixon of Kentucky, Representative John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, and President Franklin Pierce. The author notes that all of the committees "directly or indirectly related to the organization of Nebraska . . . were chaired by southerners or westerners" (85).
Next, in chapter 5, Malavasic delivers a blow-by-blow account of the Senate debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, emphasizing Douglas's actions and the speeches given by Hunter and Butler. She gives ample attention to northern opposition, especially that offered by Salmon P. Chase of Ohio. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Malavasic contends, was [End Page 152] "a masterful display of institutional knowledge, parliamentarian skill, and personal loyalty" (142).
After 1854, the story of the F Street Mess is one of declining influence. Chapter 6 follows the story into the debates over...