In one of the latter years of my undergraduate program I read/heard from one of my classes that discussing the slave trade/slavery on either the Senate and/or House floor (I forget which) was banned. Is this true and if so, how could I confirm it?

3 Answers 3


I believe this is referring to the gag rule (aka: Pinckney Resolution 3) of the US House, adopted in 1836. It read:

Resolved, That all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers, relating in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery, or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid upon the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.

As background, realize that an important but often-overlooked part of the First Ammendment is the right to petition the government.

Congress had been receiving a lot of petitions from US citizens requesting slavery be somehow curtailed or abolished. This made Southern Congressmen rather irate, so they passed the above rule. In plain English, any slavery petition from any constituent would be automatically ignored.

While this might have done wonders to re-elect the Southern reps that put it forward, it incensed northerners (even ones that didn't care much about slavery). The way they saw it, there was no longer any real right to petition Congress on this particular matter, regardless of what the First Amendment said. The number of such petitions just increased, and the southern-based Democratic party lost the next major election (1840).

If this kind of folly – the mass destruction of a party's image by its own politicians for individual short-term political gain – looks familiar, it should. Rather than take 1840 as a wake-up call, Southern Democrats only escalated this kind of behavior, culminating in Bleeding Kansas, the barbaric beating of Senator Sumner on the Senate floor, and ultimately the US Civil War.

  • 3
    that's politicians for you, never think past what provides the most votes for them in the next election cycle in their home district...
    – jwenting
    Sep 26, 2013 at 6:42
  • @jwenting - Folly of this magnitude is by its nature a temporary disease of elective systems, not a permanent feature. A kind of political Darwinism eventually removes it. See Barbara Tuchman's March of Folly for a historical perspective on this.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 26, 2013 at 11:58
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    hmm, it indeed gets removed. It gets removed by the removal of the democratic process and its replacement by a set of rulers who have no interest in buying votes as there are no voters to buy them from, only serfs to oppress.
    – jwenting
    Sep 26, 2013 at 13:23
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    Great answer, but lemme get it right: I understand from your quotation that Congress was not receiving petitions from citizens re:slavery. But were Congressmen themselves allowed to raise the issue? Ostensibly, the gag rule does not prevent them from doing so. Sep 27, 2013 at 6:17
  • @FelixGoldberg - Correct. It appears that it only applied to petitions.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 27, 2013 at 15:35

I'm familiar with the story, but it is a highly suspect claim. It is part of the Myth of the Lost Cause. The idea here is that compromise was impossible so war was the only option. For this reason, many sources may be unreliable and it would be best to use only primary sources to prove or disprove its veracity.

James Henry Hammond made his famous speech "On the Admission of Kansas" to the Senate in 1858. From this speech, we get the phrase "Cotton is King." He says, for instance:

The Senator from New York said yesterday that the whole world had abolished slavery.

The Corwin Amendment was proposed in 1861 by the House Republicans. This amendment would have made slavery legal permanently in the US, so the House had to have been discussing slavery.

According to Wikipedia

In the Congressional session that began in December 1860, more than 200 resolutions with respect to slavery,[7] including 57 resolutions proposing constitutional amendments,[8] were introduced in Congress. Most represented compromises designed to avert military conflict. Mississippi Democratic Senator Jefferson Davis proposed one that explicitly protected property rights in slaves.[8]

You could query the Senate Historical Office to find out if any procedural rule ever existed if you wanted to confirm it.

  • Good points, but what do you have to say about the gag rule that T.E.D. pointed out (i.e. what happened to it)? Both of your answers are accurate with what I learned: that the gag rule was put in place ~20-30 years before the Civil War, but by the middle of the century, slavery began to be talked about again as the Civil War started to draw closer. Mar 17, 2014 at 15:16
  • @NobleUplift The gag rule only applies to petitions. Congress was talking about annexing Texas in the early 1840's and if slavery would be allowed in the new state. As TED says, the gag rule was defeated because the South was defeated in the 1840 election. John Q Adams put a coalition together to defeat these gag rules by 1844.
    – Razie Mah
    Mar 17, 2014 at 18:04

There is a book on the gag rule and John Quincy Adams' multiyear struggle to overturn it (I read the book and it's a good read...): Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress (auth. William Miller, 1995).


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