On this dayDec 21, 1837

U.S. Congress Renews and Expands Rule Prohibiting Discussion of the Abolition of Slavery

John Rubens Smith

On December 21, 1837, following an anti-slavery speech by Vermont representative William Slade, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly renewed and expanded a rule that prohibited any future discussion about the abolition of slavery in the House. The so-called “Gag Rule”—initially passed in 1836—remained in effect until 1844, preventing the topic of abolition from even being discussed for almost a decade.

The debate over slavery had divided the House, but the Constitutional provision that counted enslaved people as “three-fifths” of a person for the purposes of determining Congressional representation gave Southern representatives the majority they needed to completely shut down any debate on the subject. In December of 1835, South Carolina representative James Hammond proposed the initial Gag Rule that required, under the pretext of maintaining order in the House, that petitions or discussions about slavery should be immediately tabled without consideration or discussion.

The rule, which effectively silenced any representatives who opposed slavery, was instituted in May of the following year under James K. Polk, who was speaker of the House at the time and would later become U.S. President.

This laid the foundation for Virginia representative John Mercer Patton, who responded to William Slade’s anti-slavery speech in 1837 by renewing the Gag Rule. His resolution declared that “all petitions, memorials, and papers, touching the abolition of slavery, or the buying, selling, or transferring of slaves, in any State, District, or Territory, of the United States, be laid on the table, without being debated, printed, read, or referred, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.”

The 1837 Gag Rule was a more extreme version of the 1836 version, applying not just to current U.S. states but also to U.S. territories, which were administered by the federal government. It allowed the House to ignore without discussion the tens of thousands of petitions sent by citizens calling on the chamber to forbid the expansion of slavery into these territories.

The extraordinary act of barring all discussion of a central moral and political issue that was shaping the nation created untold challenges and is part of a legacy of avoidance and silence about racial injustice in America.

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