Today we welcome a guest blog post from Alice Elizabeth Malavasic, author of The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Pushing back against the idea that the Slave Power conspiracy was merely an ideological construction, The F Street Mess 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. Unlike the earlier and better-known triumvirate of John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster, the F Street Mess was a functioning oligarchy within the U.S. Senate whose power was based on shared ideology, institutional seniority, and personal friendship.
The F Street Mess is available now in both print and e-book editions.
The Republic’s Need for Civility
The Oxford Dictionary defines civility as the “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech.” It is a necessary component in a functioning republic. Without it freedom is replaced by tyranny. Thomas Jefferson recognized civility’s necessity in 1801 when he wrote his Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States. In it he laid out the fundamental rules of senate decorum. As I describe in The F Street Mess, under Jefferson’s rules senate debate is to be conducted without distractions or interruptions, and a senator cannot “by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming of a Senator.”
The Senate of the United States, and the federal government as a whole, maintained Jefferson’s rules throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That is not to say that decorum did not break down on occasion, no more extreme example of which exists than the episode known as the Caning of Charles Sumner in 1856. Sumner’s beating by Congressman Preston Brooks was precipitated by Sumner’s two day speech in the senate against the Lecompton constitution known as “The Crime against Kansas.” Sumner’s fellow senator William Seward was privy to an advance copy of the speech in which Sumner ridiculed the absent and ailing Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina. Seward warned Sumner that personal attacks against fellow senators violated Jefferson’s rules and advised Sumner to remove the offending remarks. Sumner did not.