The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” During the nation’s formative years, citizens exercised that right so regularly that early rules of the House of Representatives designated the first thirty days of each session as petition days. Throughout the rest of each session, the House reviewed petitions each Monday. Gradually, however, House members began evading controversial petitions, such as those related to slavery, by referring them to committee, printing them in the record, and then ignoring them.
By the 1830s, Congressional tactics for circumventing troublesome petitions were no longer proving effective. Abolitionist organizations such as the American Anti-Slavery Society were urging citizens to flood the House with anti-slavery petitions. During that decade, the number of petitions increased from the hundreds to the thousands, with hundreds of thousands of signatures. Many of the petitions focused on the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C. When national expansion provoked disputes over the authority of Congress to regulate slavery in the territories, abolitionists argued that the Constitution undeniably empowered the legislature to ban slavery in the nation’s capital.
Alarmed by the torrent of petitions and the possibility of abolitionists creating a crack in the façade of human bondage, Southern Congressmen went on the offensive. When William Jackson of Massachusetts introduced an anti-slavery petition in the House on December 18, 1835, James Henry Hammond of South Carolina moved that the House not receive it. Hammond complained that “he could not sit there and see the rights of the southern people assaulted day after day, by the ignorant fanatics from whom these memorials proceed.” For the next two months, House members wrangled over Hammond’s motion.
The Pinckney Committee
On February 4, 1836, Henry L. Pinckney of South Carolina proposed merging all anti-slavery petitions and referring them to a select committee, charged with determining the authority of Congress to regulate slavery in the territories and in the District of Columbia. House Speaker James K. Polk consented and appointed a nine-member committee to study the matter and draft recommendations. Polk designated Pinckney to serve as the chairman.
Three months later, the Pinckney Committee submitted its report, which concluded that Congress had no constitutional authority to regulate slavery in the territories and that it would be “impolitic” for it to disturb the status of slavery in the nation’s capital. The committee recommended 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 on the table and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.
Rationalizing its proposal to table all petitions related to slavery, the committee observed that “it is extremely important and desirable that the agitation of this subject be finally arrested, for the purpose of restoring tranquility to the public mind.” Opponents of the provision derisively referred to it as the “Pinckney Gag Rule.” Over the objections of Whig Representatives led by former President John Quincy Adams, the House adopted the committee’s recommendations on May 26, 1836, by a vote of 117 to 68.
When Congress reconvened on December 26, 1836, Speaker Polk ruled that any special rules adopted in the previous session had expired at the end of the session. Southern representatives proved unwilling to surrender the advances they had made silencing anti-slavery petitioners. Sponsored by Representative Albert G. Hawes of Kentucky, the House passed the same gag rule adopted in the preceding session by a vote of 129 to 69, on January 18, 1837. For the next few years, a similar pattern emerged. As special rules from previous sessions expired, House members, led by Southerners and Democrats, passed comparable, and even stricter, gag rules.
Permanent Gag Rule
Southern-imposed censorship became more severe in 1840 when Representative Henry Wise of Virginia proposed amending the House rules to impose a permanent gag on the discussion of anti-slavery petitions. Representative Waddy Thompson of South Carolina did Wise one better and recommended an even stricter prohibition on the consideration of any legislation related to slavery. After a month of debate, Representative William Cost Johnson of Maryland merged the ideas of Wise and Thompson, and proposed the following amendment to the House rules:
Resolved, That no petition, memorial, resolution, or other paper praying the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or any State or Territory, or the slave trade between the States or Territories of the United States in which it now exists, shall be received by this House, or entertained in any way whatever.
The House endorsed Thompson’s amendment on January 28, 1840, by a vote of 114 to 108.
Whigs in Power
The political climate changed in 1841 when the Whig Party took control of the 27th Congress. The shift in power renewed the hopes of John Quincy Adams and his anti-slavery followers to overturn the gag rule in the House. Most Whigs, however, were more focused on enacting other parts of their party’s platform, making them willing to make concessions to pro-slavery forces. Despite several efforts from Adams and his cohorts, the gag rule survived the 27th Congress.
Efforts to overturn the gag rule appeared doomed when Democrats regained control of the House in 1843. Restoration of the old order was not what it seemed, however. Sectional allegiances began trumping party loyalty. An increasing number of Northern Democrats were more open to adopting the views of their anti-slavery constituents. Adams and his followers came close to overthrowing the gag rule during the first session of the 28th Congress.
Repeal of the Gag Rule
When the House convened for the second session, Adams introduced yet another resolution rescinding the gag rule on December 3, 1844. Representative Jacob Thompson of Mississippi moved to lay Adams’s resolution on the table. Remarkably, the House defeated Thompson’s motion by a vote of 104-80. Perhaps even more unexpectedly, the members then approved Adams’s resolution by a margin of 108-80, killing the gag rule. Southern members could never again muster enough support to silence the voices of anti-slavery forces in the House.