Debates and Creation over Congress “Gag” Rule




The “Gag Rule” was the informal name of a procedural motion to prevent the reading of abolitionist petitions in the House. The 1830s saw a ramping up of abolitionist activities. 1831 saw both the founding of the Liberator by William Lloyd Garrison and Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Virginia. These two events were the culmination of slave-owners’ fears, and inflammatory publications leading to slave rebellions. In 1835 Garrison started a massive mailing campaign to send abolitionist material into the South. Southerners pressured legislative actions to curtail abolitionists’ ability to oppose slavery (see Sedition legislation in Congress).

In tandem with the mail campaign, the Anti-Slavery Society organized a petition drive in 1834. John Quincy Adams, after being defeated by Andrew Jackson in the election of 1828, became a member of the House of Representatives in 1831. He became a leading figure in the fight against the Gag Rule. 

This document shows how the Gag Rule was implemented during a Congressional debate. A common issue of the petitions was to urge Congress to ban slavery in the District of Columbia, as there was no issue of state’s rights. In May of 1836, the House passed the Pinckney Resolutions, named for Henry Pinckney of South Carolina and a member of the powerful Pinckney family. It declared that Congress and no authority to interfere with slavery in the states, and should not interfere with slavery in the District of Columbia. The last part of the resolution automatically tabled all petitions regarding slavery without debate. 

The resolutions were successfully renewed until 1844 when Adams was finally able to craft a legislative coalition of Whigs and Northern Democrats. 

Questions to consider: How does slavery lead to restrictions on democratic liberties? Is this the same or different from the censorship discussed in early chapters? 

Justin Hawkins

Further Reading
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1836 “Gag” Rule

Congressional Globe, House of Representatives, 24th Congress, 1st Session, pp. 498-499.

Wednesday, May 25, 1836

“The House resumed the consideration of the report of Mr. PINCKNEY from the committee on the subject of the abolition of slavery.

The immediate question pending was the motion of Mr. ROBERTSON, to recommit the report to the same committee, with instructions to report a resolution declaring that Congress has not the power to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.

Mr. ROBERTSON resumed and spoke about an hour, in conclusion of the remarks which he had commenced on former days. [They will be given hereafter.]

Mr. OWENS did not rise for the purpose of discussing this subject.  Every member must be satisfied that the debate was unprofitable; he therefore moved the previous question, which he hoped would be sustained by the House.

Mr. WILLIAMs, of Kentucky, called for the order of the day, but the House refused to sustain the call—ayes 64, noes 86.

Mr. ADAMS wished to reply to the arguments of the gentlemen from Virginia who had just addressed the House.

The CHAIR reminded the gentleman that the previous question had been moved.

The CHAIR had, in answer to the inquiry of the gentleman from Ohio, stated what would be the effect of sustaining the previous question, and had made no decision upon which an appeal would lie at that time.

Mr. ADAMS was aware that a slaveholding Speaker occupied the chair.

Here Mr. A was called to order by various members.

Mr. WISE moved a call of the House, and asked for the yeas and nays; which were ordered, and were—yeas 87, noes 108.  So the motion was negatived.

Mr. STORER moved to lay the previous question on the table, including the report and resolutions of the committee, and the amendments to the same; which was negatived without a count. 

Mr. ADAMS desired to know what would be the main question, and that it might be stated on the Journals?

The SPEAKER repeated, that, if the previous question was sustained, the main question would be on the adoption of the resolutions reported by the select committee.

Mr. ADAMS appealed from the decision.

Mr. BOON rose to order.  It would be time enough to raise this question when the previous question was sustained.  

Mr. ADAMS.  I speak to a point of order and desire to take an appeal from the decision of the Chair.

Mr. PATTON said it seemed to him, that it should first be determined what the main question would be, as that consideration might influence the vote of gentlemen.  Peradventure the House might reverse the decision of the Chair.  He hoped, therefore, that the decision of the Speaker, as to the effect of the main question, would be first entertained, so that they might subsequently vote understandingly.

The CHAIR would entertain the appeal of the gentleman from Massachusetts, (although irregular,) it not being mater, as to the particular point of time, when it might properly be taken.  This was the first time that this question had been made; but the Chair was very clear in the opinion, that if the previous question was sustained, the question would be on the adoption of the resolutions reported by the select committee.

Mr. PHILLIPS desired the opinion of the Chair upon another point, which was, whether the committee had not transcended their powers in reporting the third resolution. 

The CHAIR could not draw this question within the vortex of the point of order.  If the House was of the opinion that, in reporting the resolution referred to, the committee had transcended its power, it would be a reason for negativing the resolution.

Mr. WILLIAMS, of Kentucky, moved the previous question upon Mr. ADAMS’S appeal, but subsequently withdrew it.

Mr. ADAMS.  Mr. Speaker, am I gagged, or not?

The CHAIR replied, that under a recent decision of the House, it was not competent, after the previous question had been moved and seconded, to debate a point of order.

Mr. ADAMS demanded that the Speaker should reduce his decision to writing.

The CHAIR said that the gentleman had no right, under the rules, to require his decision to be reduced to writing.

Mr. ADAMS.  I appeal from that decision.

The CHAIR said it was not in order to pile one appeal upon another.

The decision of the Chair upon Mr. ADAMS’S first appeal was sustained without a count.

The House then decided that the main question should be put—yeas 109, nays 89.

The first resolution was then read, as follows:

Resolved, That Congress possesses no constitutional authority to interfere in any way with the institution of slavery in any of the States of this Confederacy.

Mr. ADAMS said if the House would allow him five minutes’ time, he pledged himself to prove that resolution false and utterly untrue.

Mr. A was here called to order in different parts of the House, and resumed his seat.

The question was taken on the adoption of the first resolution; which resulted—yeas 182, yeas 9; as follows:

When the name of Mr. GLASCOCK was called, he declined voting, and asked to be excused.  His objections to the resolution had been made known on a former occasion.  He had seen no reason to alter his opinion, and would never assent to raise the question of slavery in the States in any manner or form whatsoever.

Messrs. PICKENS and ROBERTSON also asked to be excused.

When the name of Mr. THOMPSON of South Carolina was called, he rose and remarked that he could not, in conscience, vote upon the resolution, nor could he ask to be excused.

Mr. WISE, in answer to his name, said: I positively refuse to vote upon that question.

The roll having been called through—

The question first recurred on the motion to excuse the gentleman from Georgia [Mr. Glascock] from voting.

Mr. ADAMS demanded that the gentleman’s reasons be reduced to writing, and entered on the Journal; and was proceeding to address the House on the subject, when the hour of one having arrived, the House passed to the special order of the day.

May 26, 1836

Congressional Globe, p. 505-506

The preamble and third resolution were then read, as follows:

And whereas it is extremely important and desirable that the agitation of this subject should be finally arrested, for the purpose of restoring tranquillity to the public mind, your committee respectfully recommends the adoption of the following additional resolution, viz:

Resolved, That all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers, relating in any way, or to any extent whatsoever, to the subject of slavery, or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid upon the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.

Mr. PHILLIPS then moved to lay the preamble and third resolution on the table.

Mr. GRENNELL asked for the yeas and nays: which were ordered, and the motion to lay on the table was negative—yeas 69, nays 118.

The question recurring upon the adoption of the preamble and third resolution, the Clerk proceeded to call the roll.

When the name of Mr. ADAMS was called, that gentleman rose and said: I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents.  Mr. A. resumed his seat amid loud cries of “Order!” from all parts of the Hall.

The third resolution was then agreed to—yeas 117, nays 68.

EARLY ACCESS:  Transcription is under editorial review and may contain errors.
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