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gag rule
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Terms
May 26, 1836 Southern members of the House get a "gag rule" restaining discussion of issues involving slavery. The House renews the gag rule each year until 1844
  Robert Barnwell Rhett
December 3, 1844 The U. S. House overturns the gag rule (variously House Rule 21, House Rule 23 and House Rule 25) on abolitionist petitions.
  Robert Barnwell Rhett


Gag Rule

In the system of checks and balances, the citizens of the United States were given the right to petition the House of Representatives for redress in the First Amendment to the Constitution ("...petition the government for a redress of grievances"). It was only fitting that the first petition under this amendment was given to the House by Benjamin Franklin and it was regarding the gradual Abolition of Slavery.

In 1831 some abolitionists favoring the immediate abolition of slavery in Washington, D. C. began forwarding petitions to the House. These were referred to the sub-committee who reported to the House that the petitions should not be granted. What had been a trickle in 1831 became a flood in 1835, mostly because the American Anti-Slavery Society began printing and distributing petitions. The sub-committee simply ceased reporting on the numerous petitions it was handling. This bothered some Representatives, most notably former president John Quincy Adams (Adams was presenting many of the petitions).

In December, 1835, the House returned to hearing the petitions and each one was voted down by lopsided votes. By February, 1836, the House had tired of these votes. South Carolina's Henry Laurens Pinckney offered three resolutions on February 8, 1836, essentially moving all incoming abolition petitions to a sub-committee with instructions that the Congress could not interfere with slavery and should not interfere with slavery in the District of Columbia. At the request of the committee, all petitions dealing with slavery would be tabled, without printing, hearing, or reference in the Congressional Record.

Pinckney's Resolutions, and the additional resolution by the committee, were passed into law in May, 1836. Since the gag rule could only be placed into law for a single session of the House, passing a new gag rule became one of the first orders of a new session. The renewal of Pinckney's Resolution came on January 18, 1837, and of course, Adams steadfastly argued against the gag rule, but the House passed the new rule anyway.

On February 6, 1837, Adams tried a different approached. He claimed to have a petition signed by 22 slaves and wanted to present it on the floor (not in committee). Since petitions on slavery would normally go the clerk, Adams, in a parliamentary move, asked if he could send it to the Speaker. Joab Lawler of Alabama immediately objected to the petition not going to the clerk. Pandemonium broke out on the floor, with Southern members asking the House to censure the member from Massachusetts for "Gross disrespect to this House." On February 9th the resolution was rejected.

In December, 1838 the Patton Resolution (named for Virginia's John Patton) replaced Pinckney's Resolutions and in December, 1839, the Atherton Resolutions was passed to create the gag rule. The vote on the gag rule resolution, which actually tabled any abolition petition, passed 126-73, roughly the same ratio as the previous gag rules.

When the House considered the gag rule for 1841 it was renamed the Twenty-First (21st) Rule. With the Whig win in the Election of 1840 more pro-abolition Members had been seated and the vote on the gag rule ran 114-108, considerably different than the vote in earlier years. An Adams motion to omit the twenty-first from the Rules of the House failed, but he had been energized by the shift towards abolition. To quantify the pro-abolition shift, the number of signatures on petitions covered by the gag rule was 34,000 before the gag rule. In 1839, under the Patton Resolutions it was 300,000 and in 1841, under the Twenty-First rule it was "uncountable."

Twice more, called the Twenty-third (23rd) in 1842 and the Twenty-fifth Rule (25th) Rule in 1843 the gag rule passed in the House. On December 3, 1844 the House once again considered the gag rule. This time John Quincy Adams successfully marshaled the pro-abolition forces and the House voted to reject the gag rule by a vote of 108-80.

The House officially changed its procedure on receiving petitions in 1853. No longer were petitions presented on the floor but were given to the clerk, who would note their receipt in the Congressional Record and assign them to a committee.

Links appearing on this page:

Abolition of Slavery
Election of 1840
Washington, D. C.

Civil War Encyclopedia >> Terms

gag rule was last changed on - November 20, 2007
gag rule was added on - November 20, 2007




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