Alice Elizabeth Malavasic: The Republic’s Need for Civility

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 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.

Sumner’s violation of senatorial conduct did not justify the much more egregious violation inflicted upon him by Preston Brooks the day after he concluded his speech. But it is important to note that the senate did not then descend into further chaos and violence. Instead as the country moved ever closer to civil war the senate continued to function as it was supposed to. It agreed to compromise legislation on Kansas in which Kansans voted to remain a territory. When secession came in December 1860 a bi-partisan and bi-sectional senate committee of thirteen chaired by John Crittenden of Kentucky worked on measures that would stop any further secession and return those states that had. The fact that these northern and southern senators failed in their effort and civil war came anyway should not negate the fact that they tried. Should we expect anything less of our senators, our congressmen, and our president today?

John McCain says no. On July 17, 2017 McCain returned to a standing ovation in the senate chamber two weeks after surgery and a diagnosis of brain cancer. In the most important speech of his career McCain pleaded to his fellow senators to turn away from those who spew hate filled rhetoric and to remember Jefferson’s rules of civility and decorum. He called upon those in the chamber and all of us to work together for the good of the whole. Later that evening Donald Trump, the president of the United States, rejected John McCain’s call for unity and return to civility. Instead President Trump derided the very idea of civility and in an amazing exercise of hubris, stunning even for him, Trump declared that his incivility makes him greater than any president before him, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln whom Trump sees as his equal. Clearly Donald Trump neither hears nor is touched by the better angel of his nature.


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