Gag Rule

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 24

A rule, regulation, or law that prohibits debate or discussion of a particular issue.

Between 1836 and 1844, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a series of resolutions and rules that banned petitions calling for the ABOLITION of SLAVERY. Known as gag rules, these measures effectively tabled antislavery petitions without submitting them to usual House procedures. Public outcry over the gag rules ultimately aided the antislavery cause, and the fierce House debate concerning their future anticipated later conflicts over slavery.

The submission of petitions to Congress has been a feature of the U.S. political system ever since its inception. The FIRST AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution guarantees "the right of the people ? to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." First used in England, petitions have been considered an important means for the people to communicate grievances to their representatives or other public officials.

When the first gag rule was instituted in 1836, House protocol required that the first thirty days of each session of Congress be devoted to the reading of petitions from constituents. After those thirty days, petitions were read in the House every other Monday. Each petition was read aloud, printed, and assigned to an appropriate committee, which could choose to address or ignore it. This traditional procedure had been interrupted in 1835, when the House began to receive a large number of petitions advocating the abolition of slavery. Many of the petitions were organized by the American Anti-Slavery Society, which had formed in 1833.

Southern representatives, many of whom were slave owners and entertained no thoughts of abolishing slavery, were outraged by the antislavery petitions. In December 1835, southerners, uniting with northern Democrats, won a vote to table a petition that called for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Breaking established precedent, the pro-slavery faction also won a vote to deny the petition its usual discussion, printing, and referral to committee.

This procedure for the "gagging" of abolition petitions was made into a formal resolution by the House on May 26, 1836: "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...

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