Gag rule (United States)
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.
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)
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:
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.
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.: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 Senate
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. The Senate never voted in favor of considering the acceptance of any petition.
Patton (1837) and Atherton (1838) gag rules
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)
- 53 men and 23 women, of Livingston County, New York, "remonstrating against the espionage in which the post office in Richmond, Virginia, and post offices in other places, are subjected, with the knowledge of the Postmastef General".
- 17 men of Lenox, New York, protesting the "mob violence" against Amos Dresser (Tennessee), Aaron W. Kitchell (Georgia), and Elijah P. Lovejoy (Illinois); the "unlawful seizure and imprisonment for eight months" of Reuben Crandall; and that a Senator from South Carolina "declared...that, if any abolitionist come to that State, he would be hung, despite any government on earth".
- Petitions for the recognition of Haiti from 405 men and women of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, 49 men of Northfield, Vermont, 96 men and women of Vershire, Vermont, 28 men of Walton, New York, 26 men of Williamsburg, New York, 194 men and women of Marlborough, New Hampshire, 52 men of Landaff, New Hampshire, 79 men and women of Belmont County, Ohio, 204 men from various northeastern states.
- 9 petitions, from over 600 individuals seeking the rescinding of the Atherton gag [see above]
- 58 petitions, from over 5,000 individuals, seeking:
- "The abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia,
- The abolition of the slave-trade in the District of Columbia [to be prohibited by the Compromise of 1850]
- The prohibition of the slave–trade between the states,
- The abolition of slavery in the Territory of Florida,
- The abolition of slavery and the slave-trade in all the other territories of the United States,
- The refusal to admit any new slave state into the Union,
- The rejection of all propositions for the admission of Texas."
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".
Twenty-first rule (1840)
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)
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.:476, 479–481 It was John Quincy Adams who wrote the repeal resolution and created the coalition necessary to pass it.
Other examples of gag rules
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.
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.
Related to abortion rights, the so-called 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".
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