Alice Elizabeth Malavasic: What’s in a Name?

The F Street Mess by Alice Elizabeth MalavasicToday 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.


What’s in a Name? That which we call Repeal by any other name would smell as foul

Despite Republican control of the White House and both chambers of Congress the party’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act continues to struggle. Seven years ago Republican opposition to the ACA was unanimous. Now the ability to get the necessary votes to repeal is beyond reach because Republican congressmen and senators are waking up to the fact that what they have opposed all these years, the right to health care, has become sacrosanct to their constituents. Republicans need to take a lesson from history. Repealing a measure that is sacrosanct to a large portion of the American public never bodes well for politicians or the public as a whole.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was actually three separate pieces of legislation designed by Henry Clay to overcome the divide between proslavery southerners and a nascent northern antislavery effort to block slavery in the Missouri territory. Maine and Missouri were admitted as free and slave territories respectively. The critical component to the compromise was the third measure, the restriction of any further slave expansion in the Louisiana Purchase above the 36 30 parallel. Northerners initially opposed the compromise package but it passed anyway because of unanimous southern support. The Missouri Compromise, namely the 36 30 restriction against slavery, worked for over thirty years until 1854 when southern senators decided the restriction needed to be repealed. By then however the restriction had become a sacrosanct measure in the North.

Southern senators were savvy, certainly more so than Republican congressmen today. Despite a heroic effort on the part of antislavery senators including William Seward and Salmon P. Chase to correctly point out that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was repealing a measure that had worked for over three decades, southerners shaping the bill carefully avoided the use of the word. In so doing the bill in the senate devolved into a debate over language and the meaning of words “superseded” and “inconsistent with.”  In the end the agreed to language in the Kansas-Nebraska Act read “which being inconsistent with the principles of nonintervention by Congress with slavery in the States and Territories…is hereby declared inoperative and void.”

There are lessons here today for both Democrats and Republicans. Many Democrats in Congress have expressed a willingness to work with Republicans in reforming the ACA as long as Republicans drop the “Repeal” language. If the Kansas-Nebraska Act teaches us anything, you don’t need the word repeal to destroy the ACA. And Republicans need to look at the impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s actual repeal of the sacrosanct Missouri Compromise. It destroyed the second political party system and helped to bring on the Civil War. Taking away the health care of twenty to thirty million Americans today might not be as catastrophic as 752,000 Civil War dead, but it is close.


Alice Elizabeth Malavasic is associate professor of history at Hudson Valley Community College.