A gag rule prevents members of a legislative body from raising a particular issue, usually because that issue is considered too controversial or divisive.
In the United States, the most famous example of a gag rule involved slavery. Members of the House of Representatives were barred from putting forward any petition that discussed slavery during the period from 1836 to 1844. The gag rule was imposed by a series of congressional resolutions; the first of those was agreed on in 1836. The last of those resolutions was finally repealed in 1844, as a concerted action taken by John Quincy Adams and a group of his supporters in the House.
The gag order was a clear response to the abolitionist movement, which was increasing in strength. In 1834, an organization called the American Anti-Slavery Society urged its members to sign petitions and send them to Congress; over the course of the next few years, this initiative grew exponentially. In the year after the first gag order, abolitionists sent at least 130,000 petitions to Congress. Pro-slavery members of Congress stepped up their defense of slavery as more and more petitions circulated in Congress.
The initiative behind the gag rule came from Southern politicians. Representative James Hammond, of South Carolina, proposed the first gag rule in December of 1835. James Polk, of Tennessee – the man who later became the 11th president of the United States – was Speaker of the House at that time. He referred the matter to a committee chaired by Henry Pinckney, of South Carolina. Pinckney’s committee decided that any mention at all of slavery should be blocked from the House floor. This meant that no petitions, resolutions, or memorials which discussed slavery were to be discussed.
John Quincy Adams immediately voiced his objections. During the roll call vote, Adams shouted, “I hold this resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States.”
Nevertheless, the gag rule stayed in place until December 3, 1844, when Adams pulled together enough support to repeal it.
Meanwhile in the Senate, John Calhoun’s proposal to impose a gag order was voted down. In 1836, Calhoun – a senator from South Carolina – was a vocal opponent of the abolitionist movement. He argued that Congress had no place regulating slavery and the status quo should be preserved. “The relation which now exists between the two races,” he said, “has existed for two centuries. It has grown with our growth and strengthened with our strength. It has entered into and modified all our institutions, civil and political. We will not, cannot permit it to be destroyed.”
In 1836, Calhoun proposed a gag order but was voted down. It’s worth noting that historians don’t believe that most Senators had noble motives for voting against the gag order. They weren’t ardent defenders of the people’s right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Rather, they were concerned that a gag order would elevate the abolitionist cause. They also felt confident that they could just bury abolitionist petitions in committee for long enough to keep them from stirring up any trouble.