Second Coming of the Gag Rule

(May 8, 2017) Among the antebellum congressional measures most vigorously condemned by modern Civil War historians are the “gag” resolutions and rules adopted in the House of Representatives from 1836 to 1844. Abolitionists triggered them by flooding the House with numerous petitions to abolish slavery. Some petitioned Congress to free specifically named slaves who they had never met that lived in Southern states were slavery was legal. Most congressmen objected to the entreaties for two reasons. First, they did not believe Congress had the legal authority to act on them. Second, the numerous petitions impeded legislative attention to matters that could undeniably be addressed legally, which became increasingly important after the onset of the 1837 economic depression.

Despite such objections, Congress was thrown into a quandary because the First Amendment was intended to guarantee American citizens the right to speak their opinions freely and to petition the government. The number of such petitions together with the practice of accepting them regularly in a geographical sequential pattern that started in the Northeast  before proceeding elsewhere, was interpreted by many as abusive. Wrangling over anti-slavery petitions, for example, interfered with the rights of congressmen representing citizens in other parts of the country to submit petitions from their constituents.

President Martin Van Buren suggested that the House form a committee to seek a solution. The resulting committee proposed a resolution stipulating that the House would continue to accept anti-slavery petitions but would also table them without further action. The resolution passed in May 1836 with a 63% “Yea” vote. Since resolutions were required to be adopted annually, similar ones were passed over the next eight years. Opponents labeled them “gag rules” because they had the effect of preventing discussion of the anti-slavery requests on the House floor, 

Former President John Q. Adams, who became a congressman after his executive term, led the fight against the resolutions. By 1844 he convinced most congressmen that the rules interfered too much with First Amendment and they were abolished. When his party gained the majority a couple of years earlier, however, he persuaded the House to adopt a procedure that prevented any petitions  thereafter from being formally presented on the House floor. They would instead go to a clerk. Since his party was then the majority, Adams did not want petitions from the opposing party disrupting the work of Congress, which was basically a reversal of his position when his party was in the minority.

Despite expressing moral outrage against the antebellum gag rules, at least some present academic Civil War historians impose gag rules of their own. In one example a university history professor habitually tells students on the first day that they should leave his class if they don’t believe the war was basically about slavery. Like too many of his contemporaries he assumes that the reasons the Southern states seceded are the same as the reasons the North chose to go to war. If, however, the chief complaint that Northerners had against Southerners was the region’s slavery, why did they not let the South depart peacefully?

Even Dr. Eric Foner, who is often considered the leader of modern Civil War and Reconstruction interpretation, admits he cannot answer the question. Moreover, he erroneously concludes that no historian has ever been able to answer it. That’s because his obsessive focus on race leaves him unable to appreciate the economic consequences to a truncated federal Union that would result from Southern secession as explained in an earlier post. In short, the North chose war in order to avoid those economic consequences.

Unfortunately, the recent Berkeley riots and the silencing of outside speakers at too many other colleges and universities reflect a  tyrannical free speech intolerance on campus. Despite their nearly universal condemnation of the antebellum gag rules, I am unaware of a solitary academic historian that has voiced any opposition to the infringement of free speech on today’s campuses. In point of fact, as noted above, some have adopted gag rules of their own. That’s not a second coming to celebrate.

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