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The Gag Rule

John Quincy Adams

The Gag Rule: John Quincy Adams was the 6th American President who served in office from March 4, 1825 to March 4, 1829. After his presidency he continued his involvement in politics as a member of the House of Representatives where he fought for the abolition of slavery and the end of the 'Gag Rule' as part of his involvement with the Abolitionist Movement.

Definition and Summary of the The Gag Rule

Summary and definition: The Gag Rule, also called Gag Law, was a legislative regulation that limited discussion or debate on an a particular issue.

Between 1836 and 1844, the United States House of Representatives adopted a series of resolutions and regulations that banned petitions calling for the Abolition of Slavery - these directives were referred to as the Gag Rule as they suppressed discussion of issues involving slavery. John Quincy Adams, a former president who continued in politics as a member of the House of Representatives strongly opposed the Gag Rule and emerged as the leader of those opposed it.

What was the Gag Rule?
What was the gag rule that was passed in 1836? The Gag Rule of 1836 was the first of a series of formal resolutions that was passed by the House of Representatives on May 26, 1836 to prevent the reading of petitions from constituents calling for the Abolition of Slavery. The  congressional Gag Rule stipulated 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 no further action whatever shall be had thereon."

The gagging of anti-slavery petitions by Congress (the Gag Rule) continued from 1836 to 1844.

The Gag Rule for kids: Henry Laurens Pinckney
The 'Gag Rule' was the name that was immediately given to the third of a series of three resolutions made by Henry Laurens Pinckney of South Carolina on February 8, 1836 that automatically "tabled" all anti-slavery petitions, preventing them from being read or discussed in the House of Representatives - effectively gagging all such petitions. The first of Pinckney's resolutions was that Congress had no constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the states. The second of Pinckney's resolutions was that it "ought not" to interfere with the issue of slavery in the District of Columbia and the third was the infamous 'gag rule'. The House of Representatives passed the Pinckney Resolutions on May 26, 1836.

Why did the Gag Rule happen? The Abolitionists
Why did the gag rule happen? What prompted Pinckney's resolutions? The Abolitionist Movement was established in 1830. Its goal was to abolish slavery and one of the methods adopted to achieve this objective was to apply political pressure by petitioning legislatures on the subject. The anti-slavery petitions started slowly but turned into flood by 1835 as the growing members of the Abolitionist Movement began printing and distributing numerous petitions. Protocol required that the first 30 days of each session of Congress be dedicated to the reading of petitions from constituents. After the 30 days, petitions were read in the House of Representatives every other Monday. Each petition was first read aloud, then printed and finally assigned to a committee that could choose to address or ignore it. There were so many petitions that the committee stopped reporting on the numerous anti-slavery petitions it was handling. The Southern representatives, led by John C. Calhoun, were outraged by the anti-slavery petitions and thought the petitions were insulting to Southern slaveholders. The situation prompted the three Pinckney Resolutions, which included the 'Gag Rule'.

The Gag Rule for kids: John Quincy Adams
The John Quincy Adams, the former President of the United States, continued in politics after his term in office as a member of the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams was a fervent Abolitionist and was presenting many of the anti-slavery petitions. Adams began presenting petition after petition, requesting Congress to forbid slavery in the District of Columbia. John Quincy Adams became extremely vocal in his concerns that the anti-slavery petitions were being "tabled" by the committees, preventing them from being read or discussed in the House. Adams believed this was an infringement of free speech and unconstitutional.

The Gag Rule for kids: The First Amendment and the Right of Petition
One of the most important rights of Americans was the Right of Petition. In the old colonial days the British Parliament had refused even to listen to petitions presented by the colonists. The First Amendment to the Constitution forbade Congress to make any law to prevent citizens of the United States from petitioning.

"Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the ...freedom of speech...and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The First Amendment to the Constitution therefore allows American citizens to express their opinions to the government, especially in situations where they believe are unjust, allowing people to petition the government to 'right a wrong'.

What was the purpose of the Gag Rule?
What was the purpose of the gag rule?
 Congress could not prevent the anti-slavery people from petitioning the government but they could prevent the petitions being read when presented. They did this by passing the Pinckney "Gag Resolutions". John Quincy Adams protested against the Pinckney resolutions as an infringement on the rights of his constituents. But the resolutions were passed into law in May, 1836.

The Gag Rule for kids: Passing New 'Gag Rules'
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 of Congress. The first renewal of Pinckney's Resolution was passed on January 18, 1837.
John Quincy Adams responded by requesting a petition, signed by 22 slaves, to be sent to the Speaker (Joab Lawler), rather than to the clerk who normally received Anti-slavery petitions. This action caused absolute mayhem in the House, Southern members were in uproar demanding that John Quincy Adams be censured for "Gross disrespect to this House". The following resolution was made by Waddy Thompson of South Carolina on February 6, 1837: 

"That the honorable John Quincy Adams, by the attempt just made by him to introduce a petition purporting on its face
to be from slaves, has been guilty of a gross disrespect to this House, and that he be instantly brought to the bar
 to receive the severe censure of the Speaker "

The censure resolution was rejected, Adam's request was rejected and the second 'Gag Rule' was passed. The Pinckney Resolutions were replaced in 1838 by the Patton Resolution submitted by John Patton of Virginia and passed. In 1839 the Atherton Resolutions were submitted by Charles Atherton of New Hampshire and passed in 1839 and 1840. The 1841 Gag Rule was renamed the Twenty-First (21st) House Rule, in 1842 the Gag Rule, called the Twenty-third (23rd) House Rule was passed and the Twenty-fifth (25th) House Rule was passed in 1843.

When was the Gag Rule repealed?
When was the Gag Rule repealed? The Gag Rule was repealed on December 3, 1844 when the House of Representatives led by John Quincy Adams and the pro-abolitionists overturned the gag rule (House Rule 21, House Rule 23 and House Rule 25) on abolitionist petitions. The House voted to reject the gag rule by a vote of 108-80.

The Gag Rule Significance
The significance of the Gag Rule was as follows:

  • The Gag Rule fueled the growth of anti-slavery feeling in the North

  • Many Americans, who cared little about slaves and did not sympathize with the Abolitionist Movement, were incensed at the Gag Rule and its unconstitutional infringement of the freedom of the press and the right of petition

  • Northerners started to request that a limit should be set to the extension of slavery

  • Southerners united to resist all attempts to interfere with slavery, determined to add new slave states to the US

  • The controversy over the Gag Rule highlighted the issue of slavery which would eventually lead to the outbreak of Civil War

  • This rule contributed to the Causes of the Civil War

US American History
1801-1828: Evolution Era

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