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

By Alice Elizabeth Malavasic | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Senatorial Junta

On Monday, December 5, 1853, James Murray Mason took his seat in the back-right row along the west wall of the Senate chamber below the curved wrought-iron balcony of the Ladies Gallery.1 His messmate, Robert M. T. Hunter, sat slightly to the left, two rows ahead. Andrew Pickens Butler, who normally sat two seats to the right of Hunter, had yet to arrive in Washington.2 The fourth member of the F Street Mess, David Rice Atchison sat at the president’s desk on a raised dais in the center of the chamber. The dais was draped in a crimson canopy held aloft by the talons of a gilded eagle suspended overhead.3 Behind it along the east wall was a second gallery [the East Gallery] supported by eight marble Ionic columns quarried from the river banks of the Potomac and designed after the famed Erechtheion of Athens.4 Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of George Washington hung beneath it.5

Seated at the desk on the majestic dais, Atchison was literally and figuratively at the pinnacle of his senatorial career. One of only two senators with ten consecutive years of experience, Atchison had been elected president pro tempore thirteen times and was the acknowledged political slayer of thirty-year Senate incumbent Thomas Hart Benton.6 The death of Vice President William Rufus King earlier in the spring had not only made Atchison second in line to the presidency; the continued reports of Pierce’s declining health had many in the city thinking an Atchison presidency was fast approaching.7 As physically imposing as the dais on which he stood and the power he held, Atchison rose from his chair and gaveled the Senate into session at noon.

Lost in the grandeur of the chamber and the moment was a small unadorned piece of furniture composed of five shelves supported on “tall spindly legs,” the official hopper for the Senate’s bills. When a bill was introduced it was placed in the bottom shelf, moving up as it made its way through the legislative process. It was said that the space between the shelves narrowed toward the top because “so few bills survived to become law.” It was a certainty even before the Thirty-Third Congress convened that a Nebraska bill would again

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

Table of contents

  • Civil War America ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction - Conspiracy 1
  • Chapter One - Rivalries and Alliances 19
  • Chapter Two - Heirs of Calhoun 43
  • Chapter Three - Nebraska 60
  • Chapter Four - Senatorial Junta 81
  • Chapter Five - The Power to Repeal 111
  • Chapter Six - Kansas 143
  • Chapter Seven - We Must Settle This Question 171
  • Epilogue 189
  • Notes 199
  • Bibliography 245
  • Index 261
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