Gag rule (United States)

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A gag rule is a rule that limits or forbids the raising, consideration, or discussion of a particular topic by members of a legislative or decision-making body. The most famous example of gag rules is the series of them in effect in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1836 to 1844, concerning slavery.


After the beginning of the earnest agitation of Northern abolitionists against the institution of slavery in the United States in 1831, over 130,000 petitions of various kinds poured into the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate praying for the abolition or the restriction of that "peculiar institution", as it was called in the South. There was a special focus on slavery in the District of Columbia, where slave policy was a federal, rather than state, matter. The petitions were usually presented by former president John Quincy Adams, who as a member of the House of Representatives identified himself particularly with the struggle against any Congressional abridgment of the right of petition.[1]

The pro-slavery forces responded with a series of gag rules that automatically "tabled" all such petitions, preventing them from being read or discussed due to their insistence that the federal government could not interfere with the domestic institutions of the states.

Pinckney Resolutions (1836)Edit

The House of Representatives passed the Pinckney Resolutions, authored by Henry L. Pinckney of South Carolina, on May 26, 1836. The first stated that Congress had no constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the states, and the second that it "ought not" to interfere with slavery in the District of Columbia. The third was known from the beginning as the "gag rule", and passed with a vote of 117 to 68:[2]

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 ... no further action whatever shall be had thereon.[3]

From the inception of the gag resolutions, Adams was a central figure in the opposition to the gag rules. He argued that they were a direct violation of the First Amendment right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances". A majority of Northern Whigs joined the opposition. Rather than suppress anti-slavery petitions, however, the gag rules only served to offend Americans from Northern states, and dramatically increase the number of petitions.[4]:112 The growing objection to the gag rule, as well as the Panic of 1837, may have contributed to the Whig majority in the 27th Congress, the party's first such majority.

Since the original gag was a resolution, not a standing House Rule, it had to be renewed every session, and Adams and others had free rein until then. In January 1837, the Pinckney Resolutions were substantially renewed, more than a month into the session. The pro-gag forces gradually succeeded in shortening the debate and tightening the gag.

United States SenateEdit

Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina attempted to create a Senate gag rule in 1836. The Senate rejected this proposal, which pro-slavery senators thought would have the rebound (reverse) effect of strengthening the abolition movement. They agreed on a method which, while technically not a gag that violated the right to petition, had the same effect. If an anti-slavery petition were presented, the Senate would vote not on whether to accept the petition, but on whether to consider the question of accepting the petition.[5][6] The Senate never voted in favor of considering the acceptance of any petition.

Patton (1837) and Atherton (1838) gag rulesEdit

In December 1837, the Congress passed the Patton Resolutions, introduced by John M. Patton of Virginia. In December 1838, the Congress passed the Atherton gag, composed by Democratic "States Rights" Congressman Charles G. Atherton of New Hampshire, on the first petition day of the session.

Example of petitions presented on a single day (February 18, 1839)Edit

From December 1838 to March 1839, the Twenty-Fifth Congress received "almost fifteen hundred petitions signed by more than one hundred thousand people. Eighty percent of the signatories supported abolition in the capital".[12]

Twenty-first rule (1840)Edit

In January 1840, the House of Representatives passed the Twenty-first Rule, which greatly changed the nature of the fight: it prohibited even the reception of anti-slavery petitions and was a standing House rule. Before, the pro-slavery forces had to struggle to impose a gag before the anti-slavery forces got the floor. Now men like Adams or William Slade were trying to revoke a standing rule. However, it had less support than the original Pinckney gag, passing only by 114 to 108, with substantial opposition among Northern Democrats and even some Southern Whigs, and with serious doubts about its constitutionality. Throughout the gag period, Adams' "superior talent in using and abusing parliamentary rules" and skill in baiting his enemies into making mistakes, enabled him to evade the rule.

Repeal of the gag rule (1844)Edit

The gag was finally rescinded on December 3, 1844, by a vote of 108–80, all the Northern and four Southern Whigs voting for repeal, along with 78% of the Northern Democrats.[4]:476, 479–481 It was John Quincy Adams who wrote the repeal resolution and created the coalition necessary to pass it.[13]

Other examples of gag rulesEdit


A gag rule may be formally neutral, that is, forbidding discussions or arguments either for or against a particular policy. For example, William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of King Charles I of England:

forbade ministers to discuss the sublime mysteries associated with Calvin's doctrine of predestination. They could not preach it, nor could they preach against it. They could not mention it at all ... For Laud, what was at stake was not so much the promotion of his own theological opinions as the suppression of the furor theologicus that had caused so much devastation in England and throughout Europe in the aftermath of the Reformation.[14]

However, in practice, the effect (and in most cases, the intent) of even an even-handed ban on advocating or opposing a particular policy will be to entrench the status quo.



A present-day example can be found in the Dewan Negara (Senate) of Malaysia, which has a standing order prohibiting any member from proposing the repeal of those articles of the Malaysian Constitution that reserve certain privileges for Bumiputra (such as ethnic Malay) citizens and questioning the status of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language.[citation needed]

United StatesEdit

Ms. magazine criticized the use of the gag rule on women in its winter 2008 issue

Related to abortion rights, the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits U.S. funding for organizations that provide abortions, referrals to abortion providers, and in some cases any family planning (birth control) information, is sometimes referred to as the "global gag rule".

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Gilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1906). "Gag rules" . New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
  2. ^ "The Constitutional and Political History of the United States. Page 245, 1888". Archived from the original on 2014-02-21. Retrieved 2014-02-04.
  3. ^ "Gag rule". Free Legal Encyclopedia.
  4. ^ a b Miller, William Lee (1995). Arguing About Slavery. John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-394-56922-9.
  5. ^ Secretary of the United States Senate. "Gag rule". United States Senate. Retrieved January 25, 2020.
  6. ^ Richards, Leonard L (1986). The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 30–50. ISBN 0-19-504026-0.
  7. ^ Dupress, Ira E.; Tarver, H. H.; Bunn, Henry (November 5, 1836). "To the public". Augusta Chronicle. p. 2.
  8. ^ "Lynching a Jerseyman in Georgia". National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). June 24, 1836. p. 2.
  9. ^ Yannielli, Joseph. "Princeton and Slavery". Princeton University. Retrieved February 18, 2020.
  10. ^ "Petitions peresented by Mr. Slade (1 of 2)". National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.). March 14, 1839. p. 2 – via
  11. ^ "Petitions peresented by Mr. Slade (2 of 2)". National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.). March 14, 1839. p. 3 – via
  12. ^ Morley, Jefferson (2013). Snow-storm in August : the struggle for American freedom and Washington's race riot of 1835. Anchor Books. p. 246. ISBN 0307477487.
  13. ^ Nagel, Paul C.. John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life. p. 359. 1999, Harvard University Press.
  14. ^ Lee Harris (February 11, 2008). "Speaking of Islam: Liberty and grievance in Canada". The Weekly Standard. 13 (21). Retrieved 2008-03-25.

Further readingEdit

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