- The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act by Alice Elizabeth Malavasic
As her title suggests, Alice E. Malavasic argues that the F Street Mess, consisting of four senators who lived together from 1847, was primarily responsible for revising the notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act. The clause she credits the quartet with authoring explicitly repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which would have prohibited slavery from all of the Nebraska Territory. In developing her thesis, Malavasic seeks to demonstrate that the "Slave Power thesis" has more credibility than historians have usually accorded it, since they "focused almost exclusively on its use as rhetoric by the Republican Party" (p. 7).
Malavasic traces the individual backgrounds of the F Street members—Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, James M. Mason of Virginia, Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, and most importantly, [End Page 392] David R. Atchison of Missouri—before they came together in the Senate to support a proslavery agenda in the territories. After eating together at hotels and boarding houses for half a dozen years, Atchison, Butler, Hunter, and Mason purchased their own home at 361 F Street before the opening of the thirty-third Congress in December 1853. Stephen A. Douglas, chair of the Senate Committee on Territories, pushed for a bill that would organize the Nebraska Territory. Malavasic believes that the F Street Mess was instrumental in forcing Douglas and President Pierce to accept the clause repealing the Missouri compromise. Douglas preferred to leave the language of the bill ambiguous while organizing Nebraska on the principle of self-determination or "popular sovereignty."
The influence of the F Street Mess has long been noted, most recently by Rachel A. Shelden in Washington Brotherhood (2013). Shelden attributes a critical role for F Street in the passage of the Nebraska Bill within a broader consideration of living arrangements and social intercourse among Washington players from 1846 to 1860. Malavasic does not draw on Shelden's study but critiques her methodology in a footnote (p. 216). Malavasic's intended contribution is to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Mess as a power bloc in the Senate as recognized by contemporaries. A major source for her are Senate debates, which she reviews comprehensively. Unfortunately, she does not provide page references. Consequently, assessing her interpretation of records is difficult, for one has to locate and search individual speeches in the Congressional Globe or in books available on line as well as newspaper articles.
Here are three examples of her use of sources. On Sunday, January 22, 1854, President Pierce had a crucial meeting at which he acquiesced in the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. She writes, the New York Herald broke news of the meeting featuring "Atchison, Mason [and] Hunter" (p. 102). The newspaper in fact reported, "Messrs. Atchison, Mason, Hunter, Douglas, Bright, Breckenridge, Phillips, and, perhaps some others. . . ." met with the President. She compresses the names reported in the Herald to give weight to three members. [End Page 393] "The "Mess" had achieved the unthinkable, she exclaims" (p. 111).
Earlier, she cites an 1856 speech by William Seward in which he "gave the Slave Power corporeal form," named the four members of the F Street Mess, and, she implies, suggested they had become "the most powerful bloc in the U.S. Senate" (p. 8). Yet I find in Seward's speech no oligarchy of named southern senators. In fact, the only foursome Seward criticizes is Cass, Douglas, Pierce, and Buchanan for doing the bidding of "the slaveholding class." Atchison, Hunter, Butler, and Mason are mentioned to be sure, but individually, each with a different list of senators. Seward does not present them together as a clique—see The Slaveholding Class Dominant in the Republic, Speech of William H. Seward, at Detroit, October 2, 1856 (Washington, D.C. 1857), pp. 6, 8, 9, 13.
Similarly, two quick readings of Charles Sumner's "Crime Against Kansas" speech do not confirm...