- The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Actby Alice Elizabeth Malavasic
Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was a central turning point in the sectional conflict. By breaking the congressional pledge of 1820 to keep the lands north of the Missouri Compromise line free, the act unleashed destructive forces north and south that would prove, in the phrase of the day, irrepressible. Alice Elizabeth Malavasic recounts this key moment in The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Actby focusing on the four southern senators who engineered the passage of the controversial legislation. She traces the political lives of Robert M. T. Hunter and James Murray Mason of Virginia, David Rice Atchison of Missouri, and Andrew Pierce Butler of South Carolina as they moved through Congress and followed in the footsteps of their mentor John C. Calhoun. They achieved their greatest triumph with the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska legislation, a law that Malavasic correctly characterizes as the strongest confirmation for many northerners of the existence of a southern slave power.
Malavasic begins her account with a detailed narrative of the travails of the second party system. Most of this story has nothing to do with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and often little to do with the lives of her four protagonists. Yet she covers the Bank War, the nullification crisis, the Martin Van Buren and Calhoun dispute, and many other developments in the Jacksonian period with immense attention to specifics. Unfortunately, her account is marred by several key errors. For example, David Wilmot is labeled an abolitionist rather than a Democratic Free-Soiler; Thomas Hart Benton is said to have been defeated for reelection to the Senate in 1850, during the compromise debates, rather than in 1851 after the debates had concluded; and, most striking, Texas is shown admitted to the Union with California as part of the Compromise of 1850, "thus continuing the informal congressional process begun at the beginning of the Republic of admitting states in pairs," even though Texas had been admitted to the Union in 1845, as Malavasic herself tells readers thirteen pages earlier (p. 60). [End Page 693]
Malavasic finds her argument when she finally gets to the Kansas-Nebraska Act itself. Here her focus is on the "group dynamic" among her central actors, which she believes is "historically significant" and, she claims, has been ignored by other historians of the act (p. 14). Her four protagonists, who roomed together on F Street in Washington, D.C., sought to make the Kansas-Nebraska Act "compatible with the group's survival" (p. 17). "Friendship," she concludes, "became a priority over policy" (p. 17). Malavasic never demonstrates or develops this theme in the single chapter she devotes to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but in that chapter she does detail the story of her protagonists' role in joining together to make certain that the controversial law unequivocally repealed the Missouri Compromise and its territorial ban on slavery north of 36°30′. That story of organized action, she argues, lent weight to the northern belief in a southern slave power. Her four senators personified that slave power by their "control of [Stephen A.] Douglas and the president" in the climactic events surrounding passage of the notorious act (p. 112).
The remainder of Malavasic's book follows the history of sectionalism in the 1850s, injecting wherever possible the role that her four senators had in it. She recounts the story of the tragic events in Kansas; the caning of Charles Sumner, which had been precipitated by a perceived insult to Andrew Butler; the battles over the Lecompton constitution; the impact of John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry; and, finally, the Democratic divisions in the 1860 election. Malavasic concludes with an epilogue describing the Civil War and postwar lives of the three surviving messmates, whom...