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Gag Rule

A rule, regulation, or law that prohibits debate or discussion of a particular issue.

Between 1836 and 1844, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a series of resolutions and rules that banned petitions calling for the ABOLITION of SLAVERY. Known as gag rules, these measures effectively tabled antislavery petitions without submitting them to usual House procedures. Public outcry over the gag rules ultimately aided the antislavery cause, and the fierce House debate concerning their future anticipated later conflicts over slavery.

The submission of petitions to Congress has been a feature of the U.S. political system ever since its inception. The FIRST AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution guarantees "the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." First used in England, petitions have been considered an important means for the people to communicate grievances to their representatives or other public officials.

When the first gag rule was instituted in 1836, House protocol required that the first thirty days of each session of Congress be devoted to the reading of petitions from constituents. After those thirty days, petitions were read in the House every other Monday. Each petition was read aloud, printed, and assigned to an appropriate committee, which could choose to address or ignore it. This traditional procedure had been interrupted in 1835, when the House began to receive a large number of petitions advocating the abolition of slavery. Many of the petitions were organized by the American Anti-Slavery Society, which had formed in 1833.

Southern representatives, many of whom were slave owners and entertained no thoughts of abolishing slavery, were outraged by the antislavery petitions. In December 1835, southerners, uniting with northern Democrats, won a vote to table a petition that called for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Breaking established precedent, the pro-slavery faction also won a vote to deny the petition its usual discussion, printing, and referral to committee.

This procedure for the "gagging" of abolition petitions was made into a formal resolution by the House on May 26, 1836: "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." The resolution incited strong opposition from many northerners, who perceived it as a violation of their time-honored CIVIL RIGHTS. JOHN QUINCY ADAMS, a former president and now a representative from Massachusetts, emerged as the leader of an effort to revoke the new resolution. JOHN C. CALHOUN (D-S.C.), although a member of the Senate rather than the House, orchestrated the battle to preserve it.

The pro-slavery faction succeeded in renewing the gag resolution, which expired at the end of each session of Congress, in both sessions of the Twenty-fifth Congress (1837–39). On January 28, 1840, it succeeded again when it won a vote to turn the resolution into House Rule 21 (in later versions, Rules 23 and 25):

No petition, memorial, resolution, or other paper praying the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or any State or Territory, or the slave trade between the States or TERRITORIES OF THE UNITED STATES, in which it now exists, shall be received by this House, or entertained in any way whatever. As a formal House rule rather than a resolution, the gag rule was now a permanent part of House procedure and did not have to be renewed by vote each session.

This new gag rule provoked even stronger opposition. Whereas the previous gag resolution tabled antislavery petitions after they were received, the new gag rule did not allow petitions to be received. It was also more extreme than the Senate's approach, which was to receive such petitions but answer them in the negative. As a result of these changes, northerners who had previously supported the gag now joined Adams in opposing it. Several years later, on December 3, 1844, those opposed to the gag rule finally succeeded in rescinding it.

The term gag rule has also been applied to presidential regulations banning ABORTION counseling by employees of family planning clinics that received a particular type of federal funding.


Miller, William Lee. 1996. Arguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. New York: Knopf.


Congress of the United States.

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