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.
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.
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.
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.