The Master of Parliamentary Procedure

John Quincy Adams.

The United States Congress was not above adopting its own rules that would silence abolitionist views. While mass mailings to southerners became a regular occurrence for abolitionists, creating significant tension between proslavery and anti-slavery factions, those had occurred outside the purview of government. The House of Representatives, when it used a gag rule to prevent discussion of petitions relating to abolition, was striking a blow to abolitionists all over the country.


Proponents of the gag rule, such as James H. Hammond of South Carolina, had to make two arguments: (1) “that Congress lacked legal authority to abolish slavery anywhere, even in the District of Columbia,” and (2) “that the freedom of petition guaranteed by the Bill of Rights did not imply that the government would pay any attention to petitions once delivered.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 513.

In the Senate, an informal practice effectuated a de facto gag rule. When a senator introduced a petition sounding in abolitionism, another senator would move that “the question of its reception be laid on the table,” which meant that the issue was not debatable. Id. This would effectively bury the petition. This practice was commonplace from 1836 to 1850. See id. citing William Lee Miller, Arguing Against Slavery (New York, 1996), 115-19; Lonnie Maness, “Henry Clay and the Problem of Slavery” (Ph.D. diss., Memphis State University, 1980), 153-61.

John Quincy Adams, then the “elder statesman of the House,” had “persistently criticized, evaded, subverted, and undermined the gag rule.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 514. Adams, being the “master of parliamentary procedure,” knew how to compensate for the gag rule in the House. See id. He developed a strategy for circumventing the gag rule: “He would inquire of the Speaker whether a certain petition was permissible and then read from it. He would ask if a petition could be referred to a committee instructed to explain why it could not be granted. People sent him petitions not only from his constituency but from all over the country, cleverly worded so as not quite to fall under the ban.” Id. Adams earned the respect of his foes, through his innovative work. See id.

These years in Congress were a blight on the sanctity and dignity of the Senate and the House of Representatives. This is particularly true with the Senate, which was intended to be a chamber that valued debate. Regardless, it was clear that the proslavery and anti-slavery factions were finding new, inventive ways to impede each other’s agendas.

Americans of this generation and the future generations should not resort to such tactics to advance their interests. Procedural tricks executed just to silence the opposition should not be an acceptable parliamentary move.


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