The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act

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, 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. 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.

By centering on their most significant achievement--forcing a rewrite of the Nebraska bill that repealed the restriction against slavery above the 36 degrees 30′ parallel--Malavasic demonstrates how the F Street Mess's mastery of the legislative process led to one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.


The order from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to Major General Henry W. Halleck was succinct, “Arrest R. M. T. Hunter and John A. Campbell and hold them prisoners in Richmond for further orders.” Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter of Virginia was a former U.S. senator. John Archibald Campbell of Alabama was a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Both men followed their states into secession and war in 1861. Hunter, who left Washington in March of that year, was expelled from the Senate in April. Campbell resigned from the court the same month. During the war Hunter served briefly as the Confederate secretary of state before resigning in 1862 to join the Confederate Senate. in that same year Campbell was appointed assistant secretary of war by Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Both men, along with Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens, were commissioners to the Hampton Roads Peace Conference held on February 3, 1865.

Hunter and Campbell had been picked for the commission in part because of their prewar reputations as leading intellectuals within their respective branches of government. They also shared the kind of noble dispositions that had garnered them the friendship as well as the respect of their political adversaries. Though alike in so many ways, they were startling different physically, Hunter’s dark complexion the Ying to Campbell’s fair-complexioned Yang. They were both lawyers and strict constructionists. But whereas Hunter’s constitutionalism had led him to become a leading defender of slavery and states’ rights, Campbell, a Unionist, eschewed both. Nevertheless, in the months leading up to the war, Hunter like Campbell became involved in the Washington negotiations to avoid secession. Then, when secession came anyway, Campbell like Hunter followed his state.

By 1865 both men were among those in the Confederate government calling for a negotiated settlement to end the war. Jefferson Davis opposed settlement but, faced with growing calls for peace in Richmond, appointed Vice President Stephens, Hunter, and Campbell to the peace commission, knowing Lincoln . . .

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