Alice Elizabeth Malavasic: The Momentous Issue of Our National Soul

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.


The Momentous Issue of Our National Soul

The upcoming special election in Alabama to fill the state’s vacant U.S. senate seat has given rise to the question of whether the Senate will expel Roy Moore, current Republican candidate and accused pedophile, should he win the election. Given that the last expulsion from the United States Senate occurred in 1862 during the Civil War, press and political pundits doubt the likelihood of the senate expelling Moore should he be elected.

The senators expelled during the Civil War included Robert M.T. Hunter and James Murray Mason, both subjects of my book, The F Street Mess. They were expelled from the Senate on July 10, 1861 months after most southerners had already voluntarily withdrawn from the Congress. After the November elections, many southern congressmen and senators simply did not return to Washington. Others returned only to leave again as the lower South began to secede during the winter of 1860-61. Some senators sent formal letters of resignation to the chamber, while others sent nothing at all. Some followed Jefferson Davis in making formal resignation speeches from the Senate floor. Others announced their resignations in their hometown newspapers. Some, like Robert Toombs of Georgia, said nothing and simply left. The variety of ways chosen by southern senators to leave only added to the questions confronting those who remained: what was the difference, if any, between withdrawal and resignation; were the withdrawals permanent; did withdrawal affect committee assignments; and last but definitely not least, was secession legal? Unable to reach an agreement on those questions the Thirty-Sixth Congress ended on March 3, 1861.

What is the difference between the Republican controlled senate that voted to expel multiple senators during 1861-62 and the Republican controlled senate today that is loathed to expel Moore should he be elected? It’s simple, the difference is between national security and the national soul.

Abraham Lincoln became the nation’s sixteenth president the next day. The Thirty-Seventh Congress convened under Republican control and resumed the debate on withdrawal, resignation, and secession. Not wanting to legitimize the principle of secession, the Senate declared the seats of the absent southern senators vacant and removed their names from the roll. The matters of withdrawal and secession were referred to the Judiciary Committee and Congress recessed on March 28. Robert Hunter and James Mason had left Washington ten days earlier.

The Thirty-Seventh Congress reconvened in Washington on July 7. On July 10 Republican senator from Rhode Island Daniel Clark submitted a resolution, calling for the expulsion of ten southern senators, including Hunter and Mason, from the U.S. Senate for conspiring “against the peace, union, and liberties of the people and Government of the United States,” and whose states “in furtherance of such conspiracy…are now in arms against the Government…and said Senators are engaged in said conspiracy, have failed to advise the Government of its progress or aid in its suppression.” The following day James M. Mason and Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia, Thomas L. Clingman and Thomas Bragg of North Carolina, James M. Chestnut, Jr. of South Carolina, A.O.P. Nicholson of Tennessee, William K. Sebastian and Charles B. Mitchel of Arkansas, and John Hemphill and Louis T. Wigfall of Texas were expelled from the U.S. Senate for disloyalty to the Union by a vote of 32 to 10. The expulsion case (no. 36) was and remains the largest single expulsion case in U.S. senate history. Eight months later on February 5, 1862 Jesse D. Bright of Indiana, and close friend of the F Street Mess, was expelled for disloyalty to the Union. His case, (no. 40) remains the last expulsion from the U.S. Senate to date.

What is the difference between the Republican controlled senate that voted to expel multiple senators during 1861-62 and the Republican controlled senate today that is loathed to expel Moore should he be elected? It’s simple, the difference is between national security and the national soul. A review of the United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 shows that the cases after 1862 do not deal with questions of security but rather with issues of moral behavior. In every case the result has not been expulsion but either censure or voluntary resignation.  And, as with Herman E. Tallmadge of Georgia, who was censured in 1979 for financial misconduct (case no. 137), he was later defeated for reelection in 1980. The senate historian’s office concludes “the institutional reluctance to discipline individual members” is owed to the knowledge “that the voters provide the final judgement.”

We trust our national security to those we elect to serve and we owe the union we are today to the president and congress our ancestors elected in 1860. But who we are as a people, our national soul, is something only we can determine.  On December 12 Alabama voters must choose between Doug Jones, the man who in 2001 successfully prosecuted the murderers of four little girls in 1963 or Roy Moore, the man today accused of sexually assaulting seven girls in the 1970s. To paraphrase our great president Abraham Lincoln, “in your hands,” voters of Alabama and not in the hands of the U.S. Senate “is the momentous issue of” our national soul.


Alice Elizabeth Malavasic is associate professor of history at Hudson Valley Community College.  You can read her earlier UNC Press blog post here.