The Gag Rule

In the 1830s abolitionist groups, often organized by women, conducted massive petitioning drives calling for an end to slavery. Southern delegations and their northern supporters feared that any attention heightened regional tensions and promoted slave rebellions. On May 26, 1836, the House of Representatives adopted a “Gag Rule” stating that all petitions regarding slavery would be tabled without being read, referred, or printed.

Photograph of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, 1851

Photograph of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, 1851

Courtesy of Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

Former President John Quincy Adams, who had returned to Congress, took up the petitioners’ cause. Slowly support for Adams’s campaign grew, and on December 3, 1844, the House abolished the rule. The vote was a major defeat to the supporters of slavery, who recognized that their power to maintain federal support was at risk.

Anti-Slavery Petitions

The enactment of the Gag Rule, rather than discouraging petitioners, energized the anti-slavery movement to flood the Capitol with written demands. Activists held up the suppression of debate as an example of the slaveholding South’s infringement of the rights of all Americans.

Petition sent to Congress during the 1830s

Petition sent to Congress during the 1830s

Loan from National Archives and Records Administration

Petition sent to Congress during the 1830s

Petition sent to Congress during the 1830s

Loan from National Archives and Records Administration

Petition sent to Congress during the 1830s

Petition sent to Congress during the 1830s

Loan from National Archives and Records Administration

Right to Petition Cane

Julius Pratt and Company presented John Quincy Adams with this ivory cane made from a single elephant tusk in recognition of his leadership against the Gag Rule. The cane was decorated with a gold-inlaid eagle holding a petition. On the band below the knob is inscribed “justum et tenacem propositi virum” (a man just and firm of purpose). When the rule was defeated on December 3, 1844, the date was added to the eagle’s wings.

Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams taken in the 1840s

Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams taken in the 1840s

Right to Petition cane

Bequeathed by John Quincy Adams and transferred from U.S. Patent Office

View object record