Chapter 5. 1830s-40s: The right to speak against slavery and the "slave power" gag rule in Congress, featuring abolitionists, New England churchwomen, and Rep. John Quincy Adams


As Northern abolitionists began organizing more and more effectively to oppose slavery in the nineteenth century, Southern "Slave Power" went to extraordinary lengths to silence them. For nine years, in fact, it seemed that Congress, the birthplace of the First Amendment, would never even be allowed to discuss slavery--let alone abolish it.


Anti-slavery societies in the 1830s and 1840s raised funds by selling pamphlets and other materials, and they hired speakers who traveled all over the North explaining why Southern slavery was evil, and how to stop it. Slavery was virtually eliminated throughout the North by the 1830s. Belief in white superiority was so deeply ingrained, however, that the courageous speakers, men and a few women, were often threatened, injured, and run out of town. These ferocious violations of the right to speak freely continued because the courts assumed until 1925 that the First Amendment applied only to laws made federally--state and local governments could decree nearly anything they pleased (see Chapter 8.) And often mobs took it upon themselves to stifle speech, whether laws existed or not.


If hostility frequently greeted abolitionists in the North, few speakers dared venture South for fear of death and dismemberment. Instead, anti-slavery societies began writing pamphlets in an early direct mail effort. Thousands of pamphlets were mailed for general delivery around the South. It did not take long for Southern postmasters (and a Northerner or two) to begin weeding out and discarding the anti-slavery materials--a practice that today would be a clearly unconstitutional limit upon free expression. In cases where the materials were bagged by postal carriers for delivery, vigilantes caught the carriers, beat them, and burned their mail sacks.


By the late 1830s , abolitionists abandoned this tactic of mailing anti-slavery materials. They turned their considerable energies to enlisting churches and gathering signatures on petitions so that a real discussion about slavery might be held among politicians, who were hardly grateful for the nudge. For the first time in history, thousands of church-going women were mobilized. Theirs was one of the most astonishing grassroots campaigns ever: told to stay home, denied the vote, and shut out of every public institution, they nonetheless changed history. Taking advantage of their roles as moral models in home and community, women ventured door to door to gather signatures on petitions that today seem mild: typical petitions asked Congress to abolish the slave trade (not even slavery itself!) in Washington DC, the nation's capitol, because it was hypocrisy to traffic in human beings so close to the headquarters of democracy. Regularly the churchwomen and abolitionist societies sent their petitions to a few sympathetic congressmen, and asked that they be presented on the House floor. This was an important, popular use of the First Amendment's right to petition in days before there were e-mail lists or plane trips home to the district. Because their courteous reception was an important signal that legislators were sensitive to the will of the people, petitions were traditionally received and either quietly tabled or referred to committees where they quietly died. Even the abolitionist petitions, which Southerners hated, were received before 1835. (There is a rumor that years later, custodians used boxes of the tabled petitions to kindle fires.) No one in Congress wanted to discuss slavery; even pro-abolition representatives felt Slave Power was so strong that the subject wasn't even worth broaching. The only real discussion of slavery after 1790 was forced when Missouri applied for admission to the union; in 1819-20 Congress had to decide whether to skew the balance of slave and free states by admitting this new state. Bitter debate resulted in the Missouri Compromise (Missouri came in a slave state but Maine came in free). Thomas Jefferson, retired but astute, called the Compromise a "firebell in the night" that filled him with terror--but few knew how to respond to the alarm it sounded.


One December day in 1835, when Maine representative John Fairfield rose to present an anti-slavery petition from 1,100 residents of Washington DC, powerful Southerners moved to table it. The motion carried. A few days later, when Fairfield tried to get the petition dealt with, South Carolina representative James Henry Hammond moved that the petition not even be received. That too carried. Soon the representatives were voting to reject petitions upon announcement, before they could even be formally introduced. This was a slap in the face to petitioners, and a show of muscle by Slave Power. Pleased that so many Northerners fell into line with the clever new suppression strategy, Southerners succeeded in passing internal regulations that forbade House members to introduce petitions on the subject of slavery. A gag rule was born. It was renewed annually for nine years in the House. (A similar rule silenced the Senate.) In 1841, for example, House rules said: "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."


The gag was extraordinary given that Congress created the First Amendment, and its members were elected to vigorously debate important issues such as slavery. Congress should be the free speech center of the nation. But wealthy Southerners had unbelievably strong economic and psychological dependencies upon slavery. The gag rule gave the nation an early warning: pro-slavery Southerners would fight viciously to preserve their way of life. Southern Congressmen were eager, delighted, to trample the civil rights of Congressmen and constituents alike in order to keep African-descended people in bondage.


But the gag rule became the last great battle for an old warrior: former president John Quincy Adams, son of the second US president John Adams and Founding Mother Abigail Adams, and the one of the few men still politically alive who had worked alongside the Founding Fathers as they struggled to set the new nation's course.


Now a Massachusetts representative, John Quincy Adams stood defiantly to introduce an anti-slavery petition shortly after the first gag rule passed. He was in his late sixties, and slowed by age. But he was no less a Son of Liberty than he had been when, at age eight, he stood with his mother on a hillside over Concord, Massachusetts, watching the first battle in what became a successful war for US independence from Britain. (He was, around that time, a school chum of Benjamin Franklin Bache's.) For nine long years, Adams patiently, passionately, shrewdly opposed the gag rule in Congress. It was unconstitutional, he said, and no one today could seriously disagree. Month after month, year after year, he and a few other brave souls attempted to introduce and discuss anti-slavery petitions. He thought of clever ways to bring the petitions forward; he invented procedural problems that might aid his case; he explained why the right of petition must be sacred in a democracy. Month after month, year after year, he was gaveled out of order and insulted for his efforts. Adams was ostracized and reviled for so long that when some newly-elected representatives paid him a visit to offer support, he was speechless, according to a report by Ohio Representative Joshua Giddings: "The aged statesman listened attentively, but for a time was unable to reply, laboring under great apparent feeling. At length he stated that the voice of friendship was so unusual to his ears, that he could not express his gratitude."


Abolitionists were aided in their work by the 1839 publication of a remarkable book, American Slavery as It Is. The book was carefully pasted together over several months by the extraordinary abolitionists Sarah Grimke, her sister Angelina Grimke Weld, and Angelina's husband Theodore Weld. (Its format, incidentally, followed that of an earlier work by prophet William Lloyd Garrison, whose forty years of often lonely abolitionist advocacy make another great First Amendment story.) The three carefully used news accounts and testimonies by slave holders themselves to show how masters starved, beat, whipped, disabled, smothered to death, and knocked out the teeth of slaves. More than 100,000 people read the book, including John Quincy Adams, who found the research helpful when Southerners, stung by his tireless attacks on the gag rule, went after Adams personally. Their 1837 motion to censure him had failed. But they seized another chance in 1842, when Adams introduced a petition from Haverhill, Massachusetts which never mentioned the word slavery outright (petitioners were getting as wily as the Southerners who opposed them), but which asked that the union be dissolved due to the drain of resources used to maintain a certain peculiar practice in a certain portion of the country. Southerners moved to censure Adams for insulting the honor of the South and its representatives. Adams rolled up his sleeves gleefully. Finally he would be able to speak freely about slavery--and no one could gag him because he was defending himself from censure by presenting facts that supported his views. After two weeks of being attacked, Adams gained the floor and spent a week firing salvo after salvo specially prepared for him by Weld. Adams began his performance by requiring the House clerk to read the Declaration of Independence regarding the peoples' right and duty to throw off a government of absolute despotism. Then, speaking of the dignity and the inalienable rights of human beings, he went on and on. At age 75, he did not tire or weaken. His factual accounts of slavery were widely reported in the newspapers, and Adams attracted a great deal of public support. He shamed his fellow Northern representatives for siding with Southern despots. The censure effort fizzled. Southerners were losing ground. Northerners of all political beliefs began to understand that the continuation of slavery was linked to stifling the right to free speech for free whites. For most, it was a frightening realization.


But still the gag rule was in place. In 1843, for example, when Adams brought forth the biggest petition yet, a monster with 51,863 signatures, he was refused the opportunity to introduce it. So Adams left it on his desk, an enormous visual aid.


On the second day of the 1844 Congressional session, the 77-year old Adams introduced a motion to rescind the gag rule --something he always did to begin a new Congressional session. He always lost. But suddenly, because of newly elected representatives from the expanding West, and shifting party and sectional loyalties, he had the votes. The gag rule was defeated. It never garnered enough support to reappear. A clear victory over Slave Power was won. After nine years, slavery could be discussed on the floor of the House of Representatives.


The gag rule was a classic example of the dangers of suppressing speech. Suppression of political speech is always unfair, always the result of a more powerful group silencing a less powerful group. Predictably, suppression makes the suppressed resentful, doubling their determination and zeal. Tensions build quietly, secretly, when open discussion is forbidden; the kind of public airing that could alleviate tensions and bring understanding is impossible. So the suppressed group becomes creative, crafty, perhaps even duplicitous. Often secret revenge is planned. Practically speaking, a gag only works officially-unofficially, each group continues building and fortifying its positions, but without subjecting them to fruitful criticism from opponents. Thus positions solidify and polarize. By the time the gag rule ended, Northerners and Southerners were very far apart indeed. Just as importantly, many had lost the collegiality and respect for differences which had characterized early Congresses, and which had made possible negotiation despite conflicting interests. With so much tension and polarization, many assumed negotiation was hopeless, and lost interest in trying. Northerners wanted revenge upon Southerners who were now outvoted. Moderates who wished to mediate were unable to breech the gap. The Northern public lost sympathy for Southern Congressmen, and for the South they represented, because of the heavy-handed tactics. The eventual result of it all was civil war.


Certainly the issues dividing the North and South at this time were colossal, and we can't know whether open discussion during the critical 1830s and 1840s could have helped the nation avoid war. Compromises that we do know of, such as the Compromise of 1850, were in retrospect disastrous at promoting unity. Perhaps, as abolitionists insisted, there could be "no compromise with Slavery." On the other hand, many philosophers, diplomats, and leaders, including our Founders, have held that the best response to offensive speech is more speech, to counter and discredit bad ideas, to prove them weak, to offer alternatives, to challenge assumptions. Surprisingly often, even when parties to a conflict are very far apart, they can find underlying interests or common ground if they just keep talking.


It is clear that attempts to communicate would have been far more fruitful in 1838 than in 1860, when it was simply too late. After so many years of poor communication and tension, Southern states felt they no longer could belong to the Union, and they began to secede in late 1860. The nation soaked itself in the bloody Civil War, which the North won by emancipating Southern slaves so they would abandon plantations and farms to fight with the Union. Slavery was universally abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. John Quincy Adams, who died in 1848, was not alive to see it.


Mayer, Henry, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998)

Miller, William Lee, Arguing About Slavery (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1995)