Friday, December 15, 2017

Booknotes: The F Street Mess

New Arrival:
The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act
by Alice Elizabeth Malavasic (UNC Press, 2017).

Everyone will agree that the "Slave Power" construct was a powerful rhetorical and propaganda tool for Republicans, one that the new party wielded with great success in both expanding its own support in the northern states and painting southern politicians and political practices as anti-republican. However, the conspiratorial characterization of the Slave Power along with the degree to which reality matched perception have always been open to question.

The F Street Mess "push(es) back against the idea that the Slave Power conspiracy was merely an ideological construction." Author Alice Elizabeth Malavasic "argues that some southern politicians in the 1850s did indeed hold an inordinate amount of power in the antebellum Congress and used it to foster the interests of slavery. Malavasic focuses her argument on Senators David Rice Atchison of Missouri, Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina, and Robert M. T. Hunter and James Murray Mason of Virginia, known by their contemporaries as the 'F Street Mess' for the location of the house they shared.

According to the author, the F Street Mess was in essence "a functioning oligarchy within the U.S. Senate whose power was based on shared ideology, institutional seniority, and personal friendship." I'm not sure if Malavasic is also arguing that the F Street Mess was exceptional. The Senate has always had individual members with outsized influence, and surely powerful blocs of "shared ideology, institutional seniority, and personal friendship" exist in the body to this day. Stephen Douglas needed southern support for the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and that imperative by its very nature bestowed inordinate power upon those southern legislators.

More from the description: "By centering on their most significant achievement--forcing a rewrite of the Nebraska bill that repealed the restriction against slavery above the 36 degrees 30′ parallel--Malavasic demonstrates how the F Street Mess's mastery of the legislative process led to one of the most destructive pieces of legislation in United States history and helped pave the way to secession."

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