"The Only Mode of Avoiding Everlasting Debate": The Overlooked Senate Gag Rule for Antislavery Petitions
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The Only Mode of Avoiding EverlastingDebate":
The Overlooked Senate Gag Rule for Antislavery Petitions
Daniel Wirls, professor of politics

William Freehling characterizes the "Gag Rule Crisis" as the "Pearl Harbor of the slavery controversy." The explosive debate and actions over abolitionist petitions were unexpected by the membership of the 24th Congress as its first session commenced in December 1835. The gag rules that soon resulted were procedural attempts to prevent petitions for the abolition of slavery, especially those directed at the District of Columbia, from being considered on the floor of each chamber. History recalls the gag rule controversy as primarily a House issue, partly because of the extended nature of the controversy in the House, and partly because of Representative John Quincy Adams's memorable role as the gadfly against the restrictions. The gag rule was, however, a bicameral affair. The Senate was as determined as the House to silence the abolitionist voice, and in many ways it was more successful. Acting more swiftly than the House, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to reject all such petitions but then ultimately created an indirect and procedurally arcane gag that was less contentious and more durable than that in the House, one that effectively stifled debate on the objects of the restricted petitions and memorials.1 [End Page 115]

By providing the first complete account of the Senate "gag rule" on antislavery petitions, including comprehensive data on its use from its inception in 1836 to its demise in 1850, this article charts the rise and fall of the Senate effort to stifle antislavery petitions and compares it with the more infamous episode in the House. To that end, a brief account of the House gag rule is followed by a longer and more detailed history of the creation, evolution, and demise of the Senate's version, which involves attention to somewhat arcane procedural matters, something for which the Senate is justly famous or infamous. A careful analysis of the Senate gag not only fills a gap in our understanding of the controversy but also provides a bicameral lens on this important episode. A bicameral comparison can tell us something about the politics of the gag that escapes the typical focus on the House. In particular, such a comparison gives us greater purchase on the relationship between institutional politics and external political forces. Several potential sources of differences between the House and Senate could account for the contrasting action on the gag, including partisan divisions, the regional balances between slave-state and free-state representation, and the sensitivity of each chamber to democratic forces such as public opinion. While these forces are present—with a more democratic House and slightly more proslavery Senate—the evidence from a bicameral comparison points to the importance of procedural choice that does not seem directly related to these differences. The two chambers produced their initial gags with similar motives and under similar conditions, but the initial mechanisms selected by the House and Senate took them down divergent paths with regard [End Page 116] to how their gags would interact with the changing circumstances of national politics. The House gag became a more public political target for critics and political entrepreneurs, while the Senate gag proceeded with scant internal turmoil and public notice. In short, while revealing the impact of compositional and democratic differences, this bicameral comparison emphasizes how the initial procedural choices influenced the subsequent politics of the gag and how it played out in each chamber.

A bicameral comparison augments the gag episode's significance as an early and important contribution to the long train of sectional conflicts leading to the Civil War. The Senate, typically considered the bastion of southern interests in Congress but often slighted in the history of the gag, was very much part of the effort to quell the abolitionist threat by curtailing discussion and debate on antislavery petitions and memorials. The Senate's version of the gag extended for fifteen years, and the Senate endured over 300 motions to implement, and many votes to test, the procedure, until the Compromise of 1850 signaled a new era in congressional involvement with slavery and an end to the rationale for any such...