Hear No Evil: The South And The Gag Rule

by Michael Liss

However tiresome to others, the most indefatigable orator is never tedious to himself. The sound of his own voice never loses its harmony to his own ear; and among the delusions, which self-love is ever assiduous in attempting to pass upon virtue, he fancies himself to be sounding the sweetest tones. —John Quincy Adams, “Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory: Delivered to the Classes of Senior and Junior Sophisters in Harvard University.”

John Quincy Adams, by William Hudson Jr., National Portrait Gallery.

Oh, my goodness, could that man talk. And talk. And talk some more. It might amuse you to know that, in the above quote, he was referring to his fellow lawyers.

So much you can say about John Quincy Adams. Annoying, crabby, bilious, voluble. Also, one of the most remarkable men ever to occupy the Oval Office—and even more to serve in the House of Representatives. A superb diplomat, who literally began his career at his father’s elbow prior to the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris, he served four Presidents (Washington, Adams I, Madison, and Monroe) as Ministers to the Netherlands, Russia, Prussia, and the UK. He was Monroe’s Secretary of State. During the wilderness that was Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency, he spent six years in the Senate. In typical Adams manner, he managed to irritate his own Federalist Party enough for them to deny him renomination. In 1824, he won the Presidency against three strong candidates, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. None got a majority of the Electoral College, and the race was thrown into the House. There, Clay endorsed Adams, enraging Jackson supporters (who called it a “Corrupt Bargain” when Adams picked Clay for Secretary of State).

Adams was not as deft a President as he was a diplomat, and Jackson trounced him in a rematch in 1828, sending the then-61-year-old home to his failing farm in Massachusetts. He was not thrilled to be back in the Commonwealth; he sulked and became even more a pain until his own neighbors rescued him by sending him back to Washington as a Congressman.

He returned to a rapidly evolving environment. The “First Party System,” consisting of his father’s Federalists facing off against the Jefferson-led Democratic-Republican party, had ended with the Federalists fading into near irrelevance, except in parts of New England. The “Second Party System” reflected an atomization and a realignment, as different groups recognized common interests. The remarkable fact about the 1824 Election was that all four of the candidates were at least nominally of the same party—Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican.

That didn’t last. Jackson had become the new center of the universe, with a new group of supporters, and, for 1828, the Democratic-Republican Party fractured into the “Jacksonian Democrats” and Adams’ “National Republicans.”

Strong personalities like Jackson induced both blind loyalty and fierce enmity, and Jackson’s taste for control (as well as his handling of the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina) made for plenty of both. In 1832, the election that brought Adams to the House, Jackson routed the now-National Republican candidate Henry Clay, as well as two regional candidates, John Floyd of Virginia (and the Nullifier Party) and William Wirt of Maryland of the newly minted, anti-elitist “Anti-Masonic” Party. Clay then merged more mainstream elements of the Anti-Masonic Party into the National-Republican, waved a magic wand, and formed the Whig Party, which, as a repository of opposition to the Jacksonians, put up a good fight for the next couple of decades.

All these names and faces, famous and obscure (there were five separate candidates who got Electoral votes in the 1836 Election, four of them nominally Whigs) hid something important—a gigantic realignment, spurred by the broadening of the franchise and greater interest in politics, was taking place. The movements were both centripetal and centrifugal, reflecting the number and complexity of the issues the country faced. Winding like a voracious serpent through them all was slavery.

This wasn’t the Founders’ America. Thirteen states had become 24, with more territories waiting for admission. Just two generations had radically changed the population distribution. In 1790, Virginia had twice the population of the next largest state, North Carolina. Massachusetts and New York followed. By 1830, New York’s population had grown more than fivefold, and Virginia had fallen to third place. Ohio, which was first given statehood in 1803, was now fourth, surpassing every other Southern and Border state. Within the Southern and Border states, a different type of dynamic was occurring: For a variety of economic reasons, including soil depletion, states along the eastern seaboard like Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina were becoming less hospitable to plantation life, and, there, slave population growth stagnated. The profits were to be made by going farther South and Southwest.

Some of the slave-holding elites did just that, but more stayed home and tended to their declining fortunes, occasionally selling a slave or two “down the river” for ready cash to meet their debts. Few of them gave up the idea of a slave-based economy, the expansion of slavery to the territories, or the necessity of their home states’ dictating to the more Northern “Free States.”

It wasn’t all about power or money, although those certainly played critical roles. It was also about race, and the place (such as it was) of Blacks in America. There was an uncomfortable Jekyll and Hyde to race relations in the 19th Century, and was a disease that manifested itself differently in those who owned slaves and those who did not. The major slaveowner was tempted by the secret formula; he found it impossible to resist; he couldn’t imagine running his household or his plantation without them. He was aware there was danger in the addiction, occasionally would advocate for manumission after his death, but often couldn’t bring himself to do it. Thomas Jefferson belonged in this category. Then, there was the non-slaveowner who profited from slavery tangentially (Northern manufacturers, bankers, shipping companies) and closed his eyes and ears to the degradation. He ran the tavern that Mr. Hyde drank at each night, and business was good. He was indifferent to the plight of the enslaved and liked the money he made. But there’s a very good argument that slavery could not have endured as long as it did without the third and largest group: those who disagreed with, even abhored slavery, but weren’t eady to live with Blacks at all, much less as equals. For decades, while massive compromises, often accommodating slaveowners, were hammered out in Congress, this group stood by, largely silent. They were Dr. Jekyll when Mr. Hyde went on holiday. They recognized the moral wrong; they didn’t profit from it; they earnestly wished the entire Peculiar Institution could be ended with a bolt of lightning from on high. Yet they fought only for their own interests, and intermingling with Blacks was not in those interests.

What did the majority of whites want? Either to own Blacks, or to be entirely free of them. Most emancipatory plans included resettlement. Jefferson wanted that. Clay did. The State of Maryland set aside over $200,000 for the purpose. That it was essentially impossible—there were two million Blacks in the United States in 1830—didn’t stop people from hoping. It also didn’t stop people from relying on that hope to defer action on the issue itself.

There was another factor in securing slavery for slaveholders—the party system. Jackson’s Democrats became increasingly like Jackson, a party for hard-headed, bare-knuckled egalitarianism for white men only. This drew more Southerners, giving them unquestioned control of the party apparatus. As Democrats dominated the national government, and the South controlled the Democrats, it made for complicated choices for Northern Democrats. To be sure, some of them, like James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce, were simply Southern sympathizers. But a greater number found themselves voting against their region’s interests out of either party loyalty or fear of losing spoils doled out by the national government. Southern Democrats would expect nothing less.

An unhealthy cycle took hold—the more the South won, the more it demanded. A certain megalomania combined with a touch of paranoia developed alongside. In the early 1830s, a new factor came into play, the development of a faith-based Abolitionist movement that acted outside the political parties. While Abolitionism was still considered a fringe idea, it had a platform, William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator and an organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society.

The Abolitionists did two things to enrage the South—the first was to send Abolitionist tracts (not exactly subtly worded) through the U.S. Mails to Southerners, including slaveholders. The second, beginning in 1835, was to petition Congress for the abolition of slavery in Washington D.C. itself.

The two-pronged approach drove the South half-mad. The mailings they considered immensely dangerous—perhaps a few educated slaves would get copies and go from there to foment a violent revolt. Southern slaveholders saw a direct line from these histrionic, fire-and-brimstone broadsheets to future Denmark Veseys and Nat Turners. Trusted house slaves would turn into monsters, murdering the plantation owners’ womenfolk and children in their beds. A variety of extra-legal methods were engaged to block the mailings, many with the active involvement of Jackson’s administration. Jackson’s own “Annual Message” proposed stiff penalties for the distribution of these “incendiary” publications.

The North begrudgingly tolerated Jackson’s and the South’s tampering with the mails, even though they knew it was wrong. It was the Abolitionists’ second strategy, and the Southern reaction to it, that would have an impact that was both unanticipated and far-reaching.

The Abolitionists’ use of petitions, and the choice of target (Washington D.C.), was quite ingenious. Under the “District Clause” of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17), the U.S. Congress exercises review power over all legislation passed in D.C. before it can become law. Congress can also impose its own laws, regardless of the opinion of the residents. What the Abolitionists requested was not like abolishing slavery in Georgia—few people thought that possible—but a simple exercise of authority that Congress arguably had been granted to it by the Constitution. It’s not that the Abolitions expected it would happen—they could count as well as anyone—but that it should happen.

That the Abolitionists used language that was more than a bit florid, and that they sent literally hundreds of petitions on the same subject, didn’t make for persuasion. What it did do was trigger the South in a manner not seen since the arguments leading to the Compromise of 1820.

A South triggered was not a pretty sight. Southern concepts of honor demanded a “vigorous” response, and Southerners in Congress did not lack vigor. They also did not lack power. They dominated the House and controlled the Senate in the 24th Congress (1835-37).

The South demanded that Congress refuse to entertain any of these petitions. And, by “refuse to entertain,” they were serious—not merely to reject the substance of the petitions, but effectively to refuse to let them in the door. No discussion—not publicly, not behind a committee’s closed doors, none, period.

That was considered an extraordinary ask, as the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is explicitly set forth in the First Amendment. The South didn’t care. They claimed that discussion of slavery would put them at risk of slave unrest. It would increase Northerners’ animus towards the institution and erode support for it in the Border states. It might even sap Southern self-esteem. For these reasons, it needed to be choked off before it got even close to Congress. They insisted that a mechanism be adopted.

In December of 1835, Representative James Hammond of South Carolina introduced an extensive Gag Rule proposal, and Speaker (and later President) James Polk (of Tennessee) referred it to a committee chaired by Henry L. Pinckney (also of South Carolina). For weeks, the debates raged, until Pinckney reported back, in February 1836, a rule that all petitions, memorials, or resolutions regarding slavery should automatically be tabled and all discussions or further referrals banned.

Northerners were shocked at the potential scope of the rule. If the Southern majority could ignore the Constitution and ban these petitions, it could cut off speech about slavery altogether. It was not much of a leap to think that the same process could also prevent debate about any other topic the South felt it didn’t want to discuss. But Northerners weren’t in control. Instead, Southern factions (Southern Whigs, Southern Democrats, and the doctrinaire John C. Calhoun and his followers) competed to come up with the most restrictive language. Northern Democrats got enormous pressure to go along—their attempts at saving some face with a slightly watered-down proposal led to even more intense arm-twisting.

When the House assembled to vote, tempers were high, but the results were preordained. As the Clerk called the roll, John Quincy Adams shouted out, “I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States.” It didn’t matter. Adams rose to speak, but his colleagues literally drowned him out, and Speaker Polk refused to recognize him. “Am I Gagged?” he yelled over the din.

He was, by a vote of 117 to 68. I suspect that just about everyone in the Chamber at that dramatic moment thought him, and the issue, gagged, trussed, and blindfolded, but they underestimated the old man. Adams wasn’t the type to give up, and, time and again over the next eight years, he would try to introduce petitions, losing each time, but not before he made his point.

The South grew to hate him with an intensity they reserved for a very few. He was physically threatened, but seemed undeterred. Perhaps his self-confidence came from a mix of pure orneriness combined with the knowledge that attacking a man in his 60s, who just happened to be a former President and the son of a Founding Father, might be considered a bit…gauche.

What was gradually becoming clear was that the South had made a gigantic strategic mistake. Before the Gag Rule, most Northerners were not sympathetic to the Abolitionists. They might not have seen Garrison and his movement as an existential threat to a way of life, as did the South, but they recognized the hyperbole, the overreach, and the preachiness, and they rejected it. They resented that Southern appetites and demands were growing, even as the gap between the North and South was widening in both population and economic output. The naked power grab that was the Gag Rule increased Northerners’ resistance to further expansion of the slaveocracy.

Ivory cane presented to John Quincy Adams by Julius Pratt & Co., in recognition of his leadership against the Gag Rule. The gold-laid eagle is shown holding a petition, and the inscription reads “justum et tenacem propositi virum” (a man just and firm of purpose). The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

As for Adams himself, he was, of course, undeterred by episodic failures. At the beginning of each term, he would try again to repeal the rule, falling short each time, but always narrowing the gap. In 1841, he three times won a vote to repeal the then-extant Gag Rule, but lost on a re-vote when arms were twisted.

The South realized that the old man was playing a better long game than they were, and grew frustrated. Early in 1842, when Adams introduced the ultra-controversial Haverhill Petition, which called for the Union’s dissolution, Virginia’s combustible (with both words and weapons) Henry Wise introduced a motion to censure him. Adams answered the charges against him by having the Clerk read into the record the Declaration of Independence. The Haverhill residents had called for the dissolution of the Union because their pleas were not being heard. The Declaration made Adams’ point.

Wise couldn’t resist. He lit into Adams in a two-day speech, and Adams responded in kind. Northern congressmen recognized that the peril to Adams endangered them all. They introduced a motion to table censure, and it passed with votes to spare.

In December 1844, the House finally repealed the Gag Rule. Northern Democrats were let off the leash by their Southern brethren and voted for repeal. The South had finally realized something they might profitably have noticed a decade before—there were far bigger issues that demanded their attention and would test their ability to command a majority.

First up would be the annexation of Texas, and its possible admission as a slave state. Adams had some opinions on that…, but we will leave them for another time.