History of the US Congressional Gag Rule

Daguerreotype image of John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams while serving in Congress. Bettmann/Getty Images

The gag rule was a legislative tactic employed by southern members of Congress beginning in the 1830s to prevent any discussion of enslavement in the House of Representatives. The silencing of enslavement opponents was accomplished by a resolution first passed in 1836 and renewed repeatedly for eight years.

The suppression of free speech in the House was naturally deemed offensive to northern members of Congress and their constituents. What came to be widely known as the gag rule faced opposition for years, most notably from former president John Quincy Adams.

Adams, who had been elected to Congress following one frustrating and unpleasant presidential term in the 1820s, became the champion of anti-enslavement sentiment on Capitol Hill. And his stubborn opposition to the gag rule became a rallying point for the growing North American 19th-century Black activist movement in America.

The gag rule was finally rescinded in December 1844.

The tactic had been successful in its immediate goal, the silencing of any debate about enslavement in Congress. But in the long term, the gag rule was counterproductive... The tactic came to be viewed as patently unfair and undemocratic

Attacks upon Adams, which ranged from attempts to censure him in Congress to a constant stream of death threats, eventually made his opposition to enslavement a more popular cause.

The heavy-handed suppression of debate over enslavement heightened the deepening divide in the country in the decades before the Civil War. And the battles against the gag rule worked to bring North American 19-century Black activist sentiment, which had been considered a fringe belief, closer to the mainstream of American public opinion.

Background to the Gag Rule

Compromises over enslavement had made the ratification of the United States Constitution possible. And in the early years of the country, the issue of enslavement was generally absent in Congressional debates. One time it arose was in 1820 when the Missouri Compromise set a precedent about the addition of new states.

Enslavement was being made illegal in the northern states in the early 1800s. In the South, thanks to the growth of the cotton industry, the institution of enslavement were only getting stronger. And there seemed to be no hope of ending it through legislative means. 

The U.S. Congress, including nearly all members from the North, accepted that enslavement was legal under the Constitution, and it was an issue for the individual states.

However, in one particular instance, Congress did have a role to play in enslavement, and that was in the District of Columbia. The district was ruled by Congress, and enslavement was legal in the district. That would become an occasional point of debate, as congressmen from the North would periodically urge that enslavement in the District of Columbia be outlawed.

Until the 1830s, enslavement, as abhorrent as it may have been to many Americans, was simply not discussed much in the government. A provocation by North American 19th-century Black activists in the 1830s, the pamphlet campaign, in which anti-enslavement pamphlets were mailed to the South, changed that for a time.

The issue of what could be sent through the federal mails suddenly made anti-enslavement literature a highly controversial federal issue. But the pamphlet campaign fizzled out, as mailing pamphlets which would be seized and burned in southern streets were seen as simply impractical.

And anti-enslavement campaigners began to rely more on a new tactic, petitions sent to Congress.

The right of petition was enshrined in the First Amendment. Though often overlooked in the modern world, the right to petition the government was held in very high regard in the early 1800s.

When citizens began sending anti-enslavement petitions to Congress, the House of Representatives would be confronted with the increasingly contentious debate about enslavement.

And, on Capitol Hill, it meant pro-enslavement legislators began to seek a way to avoid dealing with the anti-enslavement petitions entirely.

John Quincy Adams in Congress

The issue of petitions against enslavement and the efforts by southern legislators to suppress them did not begin with John Quincy Adams. But it was the former president who brought great attention to the issue and who persistently kept the matter controversial.

Adams occupied a unique place in early America. His father, John Adams, had been a founder of the nation, the first vice president, and the country’s second president. His mother, Abigail Adams, was, like her husband, a dedicated opponent of enslavement.

In November 1800 John and Abigail Adams became the original inhabitants of the White House, which was still unfinished. They had previously lived in places where enslavement was legal, though waning in actual practice. But they found it particularly offensive to look from the windows of the president’s mansion and see groups of slaves working to build the new federal city.

Their son, John Quincy Adams, inherited their abhorrence of enslavement. But during his public career, as a senator, diplomat, secretary of state, and president, there hadn’t been much he could do about it. The position of the federal government was that enslavement was legal under the Constitution. And even an anti-enslavement president, in the early 1800s, was essentially forced to accept it.

Adams lost his bid for a second presidential term when he lost the very bitter election of 1828 to Andrew Jackson. And he returned to Massachusetts in 1829, finding himself, for the first time in decades, with no public duty to perform.

Some local citizens where he lived encouraged him to run for Congress. In the style of the time, he professed to have little interest in the job but said if the voters chose him, he would serve.

Adams was overwhelmingly elected to represent his district in the U.S. House of Representatives. For the first and only time, an American president would serve in Congress after leaving the White House.

After moving back to Washington, in 1831, Adams spent time becoming familiar with the rules of Congress. And when the Congress went into session, Adams began what would turn into a lengthy battle against southern pro-enslavement politicians.

A newspaper, the New York Mercury, published, in the issue of December 21, 1831, a dispatch about events in Congress on December 12, 1831:

"Numerous petitions and memorials were presented in the House of Representatives. Among them were 15 from the citizens of the Society of Friends in Pennsylvania, praying for the consideration of the question of slavery, with a view to its abolition, and for the abolition of the traffic of slaves within the District of Columbia. The petitions were presented by John Quincy Adams, and referred to the Committee on the District."

By introducing the anti-enslavement petitions from Pennsylvania Quakers, Adams had acted audaciously. However, the petitions, once they were sent to the House committee which administered the District of Columbia, were tabled and forgotten.

For the next few years, Adams periodically presented similar petitions. And the anti-enslavement petitions were always sent into procedural oblivion.

In late 1835 southern members of Congress began to get more aggressive about the issue of anti-enslavement petitions. Debates about how to suppress them occurred in Congress and Adams became energized to fight the efforts to stifle free speech.

On January 4, 1836, a day on which members could present petitions to the House, John Quincy Adams introduced an innocuous petition related to foreign affairs. He then introduced another petition, sent to him by citizens of Massachusetts, calling for the ending of enslavement.

That created a stir in the House chamber. The speaker of the house, future president and Tennessee congressman James K. Polk, invoked complicated parliamentary rules to prevent Adams from presenting the petition.

Throughout January 1836 Adams continued to try to introduce anti-enslavement petitions, which were met with an endless invocation of various rules to ensure they wouldn’t be considered. The House of Representatives bogged down completely. And a committee was formed to come up with procedures to handle the petition situation.

Introduction of the Gag Rule

The committee met for several months to come up with a way to suppress the petitions. In May 1836 the committee produced the following resolution, which served to completely silence any discussion of enslavement:

“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.”

On May 25, 1836, during a heated Congressional debate on the proposal to silence any talk of enslavement, Congressman John Quincy Adams tried to take the floor. Speaker James K. Polk refused to recognize him and called on other members instead.

Adams eventually got a chance to speak but was quickly challenged and told the points he wished to make were not debatable.

As Adams tried to speak, he was interrupted by Speaker Polk. A newspaper in Amherst, Massachusetts, The Farmer’s Cabinet, on June 3, 1836 issue, reported on the anger shown by Adams in the May 25, 1836 debate:

“At another stage of the debate, he appealed again from a decision of the Speaker, and cried out, ‘I am aware there is a slave-holding Speaker in the Chair.’ The confusion which ensued was immense.
“Affairs having gone against Mr. Adams, he exclaimed -- 'Mr. Speaker, am I gagged or not?' “

That question posed by Adams would become famous.

And when the resolution to suppress talk of enslavement passed the House, Adams received his answer. He was indeed gagged. And no talk of enslavement would be allowed on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Continuous Battles

Under the rules of the House of Representatives, the gag rule had to be renewed at the outset of each new session of Congress. So over the course of four Congresses, a span of eight years, the southern members of Congress, along with willing northerners, were able to pass the rule anew.

Opponents of the gag rule, most notably John Quincy Adams, continued to battle against it whenever they could. Adams, who had acquired the nickname “Old Man Eloquent,” frequently sparred with southern congressmen as he would try to bring the subject of enslavement into House debates.

As Adams became the face of opposition to the gag rule, and to enslavement itself, he began to receive death threats. And at times resolutions were introduced in Congress to censure him.

In early 1842, a debate over whether to censure Adams essentially amounted to a trial. Accusations against Adams and his fiery defenses appeared in newspapers for weeks. The controversy served to make Adams, at least in the North, a heroic figure battling for the principle of free speech and open debate.

Adams was never formally censured, as his reputation probably prevented his opponents from ever gathering the necessary votes. And in his old age, he continued to engage in blistering rhetoric. At times he baited southern congressmen, taunting them over their enslavement of African Americans.

The End of the Gag Rule

The gag rule persisted for eight years. But over time the measure was seen by more and more Americans as essentially anti-democratic. Northern members of Congress who had gone along with it in the late 1830s, in the interest of compromise, or simply as a surrender to the power of the states that allowed enslavement, began to turn against it.

In the nation at large, the North American 19th-century Black activist movement had been seen, in the early decades of the 19th century, as a small band on the outer fringe of society. Editor William Lloyd Garrison had even been attacked on the streets of Boston. And the Tappan Brothers, New York merchants who often financed these activities, were routinely threatened.

Yet, if the activists were widely viewed as a fanatical fringe, tactics like the gag rule made the pro-enslavement factions appear just as extreme. The suppression of free speech in the halls of Congress became untenable to northern members of Congress.

On December 3, 1844, John Quincy Adams put forth a motion to rescind the gag rule. The motion passed, by a vote in the House of Representatives of 108 to 80. And the rule which had prevented debate over enslavement was no longer in force.

Enslavement, of course, was not ended in America until the Civil War. So being able to debate the issue in Congress did not bring an end to enslavement. Yet, by opening up a debate, changes in thinking were made possible. And the national attitude toward enslavement was no doubt affected.

John Quincy Adams served in Congress for four years after the gag rule was rescinded. His opposition to enslavement inspired younger politicians who could carry on his fight.

Adams collapsed at his desk in the House chamber on February 21, 1848. He was carried to the speaker's office and died there the following day. A young Whig congressman who had been present when Adams collapsed, Abraham Lincoln, was a member of the delegation which traveled to Massachusetts for the funeral of Adams.

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McNamara, Robert. "History of the US Congressional Gag Rule." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/congress-gag-rule-4129163. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). History of the US Congressional Gag Rule. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/congress-gag-rule-4129163 McNamara, Robert. "History of the US Congressional Gag Rule." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/congress-gag-rule-4129163 (accessed June 3, 2023).