Gag Rule against Abolitionist Petitions

The term "gag rule" now has a wide meaning, and is applied to any rule that prevents discussion of a sensitive topic. Historically, it is most associated with the rule adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1836, which forbade any discussion of the abolition of slavery in America.

Many petitions were sent to Congress, particularly pointing out that while Congress might not be able to suppress slavery in the states, it could do so in the District of Columbia. These petitions, which numbered in the tens of thousands, were officially ignored. John Quincy Adams, the most consistent opponent of the rule, made a point of reading some of them at the opening of each session, when the rule was debate before being passed.

No such official rule held in the Senate, but there was a practice to read the petitions and then officially vote to ignore them. Southerners would have preferred an actual gag rule. In February 1837, John C. Calhoun delivered a speech in which he spoke against the petitions and for a gag rule in the Senate:

I do not belong to the school which holds that aggression is to be met by concession. Mine is the opposite creed, which teaches that encroachments must be met at the beginning, and that those who act on the opposite principle are prepared to become slaves. In this case, in particular, I hold concession or compromise to be fatal. If we concede an inch, concession would follow concession--compromise would follow compromise, until our ranks would be so broken that ef­fectual resistance would be impossible. We must meet the enemy on the frontier, with a fixed determination of maintaining our position at every hazard.

No gag rule was enacted by the Senate and the House gag rule expired in 1844.

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