Anti-Abolitionist Gag Rules

The First Amendment to the Constitution provides for the right of the people ‘‘to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’’ Starting in the 1830s, opponents of slavery inundated Congress each session with petitions seeking to end slavery wherever the federal government had jurisdiction, such as the territories and the District of Columbia. What had started as a trickle swelled to a flood, and in 1837 and 1838, abolitionists sent more than 410,000 petitions to Congress bearing more than one million signatures.

Southerners responded with outrage, and in 1836 Representative Henry L. Pinckney of South Carolina proposed a ‘‘gag rule’’ that provided that all petitions relating to slavery ‘‘shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid upon the table, and that no further action whatever shall be taken thereon.’’ The rule passed by a large majority but not without opposition, especially from former president John Quincy Adams, now a congressman from Massachusetts. ‘‘I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution,’’ he declared, and of ‘‘the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents.’’

The House renewed the Pinckney gag at each new session until 1840, when it became a standing rule. At every session, Old Man Eloquent, as Adams was nicknamed, protested, often alone, that the rule was unconstitutional. Despite threats of censure and expulsion from his proslavery colleagues, Adams gradually gained support from other northern congressmen. Adams did not agree with many of the petitions, he told the House, but he held the right to petition as one of the inalienable freedoms handed down to Americans from their English heritage. The English Bill of Rights of 1689 had confirmed this right, as had the resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and the First Amendment.

Finally, in 1844, Adams’s perennial resolution calling for the elimination of the gag rule carried the day.

MELVIN I. UROFSKY

References and Further Reading

  • Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Union. New York: Knopf, 1956.

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