F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote The Kansas-Nebraska Act, by Alice Elizabeth Malavasic
This book is an interesting book on the institutional power of the Senate that looks at the period leading up to the Civil War . The author has managed at least to make a book that has at its core a compelling topic, and that is the friendship and partnership of four Southern senators who were the heirs of John C. Calhoun who for one shining moment were able to control the power of the Senate in their hands and push around a weak president and demand that a law pander to the whims of the slave power until their epic overreach prompted a reaction that crippled the Democratic party in the north and led inexorably to “Bleeding Kansas” and the triumph of the Republicans and the Civil War. The author, though, faces a bit of a dilemma that she fails to resolve as clearly as she wishes, and that is to demonstrate the reality of the slave power while simultaneously denying that this naked abuse of institutional power amounted to the slave power conspiracy that was condemned by Lincoln and others. The more she demonstrates the power of these corrupt Southern Senators, the more she demonstrates the fact that those who argued about a conspiracy led by senators who roomed together were substantially correct in their charges.
This book is a short one, coming in at 200 pages with a lot of notes at the end to demonstrate to the reader that the author has done her homework in terms of reading the sources. Given the fact that the author is obscure and in somewhat over her head–at one point she claims that California balanced Texas in terms of the free and slave states and fails to note that California’s status as a free state was a sign that there would be no more slave states and that the South was increasingly marginalized as a region–the fact that she has done her reading is at least a good sign even if she does not fully understand the political history of the late antebellum period. The book looks at rivalries and alliances in the 19th century history of Congress, looks at the long history of attempts to organize the territory between the Mississippi River and the Rockies, and comments on the power and principles of the various players at the time, and also looks at the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act when electoral politics and the rise of sectional hostility destroyed the power of the F Street Mess, showing that their power was impressive but fragile.
This book is a good read if you happen to be fond of the history of institutions. Often people look to individuals for power, but this book is a worthwhile reminder about why it is that people fight so hard for positions and offices, and why knowing the rules of an institution is vital to making things work. The book also serves as a cautionary tale that gaining institutional power at the expense of justice and equity tends to inspire people to rise up against those who abuse such power, as was the case here. Given that the South was an increasingly embattled minority region, what happened with the Kansas-Nebraska Act is a demonstration of the great corruption of the period as well as the way that Southern attempts to maintain and/or increase their power in the republic inspired those who were hostile to the slave power to coalesce in order to overcome that power through the triumph of republican politics. This book ought to be a lesson to those who seek to increase their power at the expense of the interests of the United States and its people as a whole, since there are many people who would seek to enshrine injustice while seeking to insulate themselves from electoral majorities even now.
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