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NARA Exhibit on the Gag Rule

John Quincy Adams: Gag Rule Controversy,
Petition Purporting to Come from Slaves

House of Representatives
Monday, February 6, 1837

Petitions, Memorial, etc.


Adams presents petitions

…Mr. Adams presented a great number of petitions praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, both from citizens of his own State and from those of other States; while proceeding in the latter,


Point of order on presenting petitions from other States

Mr. Robertson raised the point of order whether it was competent for a member to present petitions from a State of which he was not a member, and thereby forestall other States behind his own. He asked for the decision of the Chair on the point; remarking that he was well assured, if the Chair decided according to his own judgment, and not according to precedent, he would sustain the point. The practice of which he complained was a clear and palpable violation of the rule, in principle at least, if not in its letter.


The Chair stated that the practice adverted to had uniformly prevailed in the House. The period was but recent, when the rule was adopted calling for memorials in the order of States, and was to avoid the confusion and embarrassment of a number of members rising at the same moment to get in their petitions. Every member had a right to present a petition, come from what quarter it might. Perhaps the case of a member handing over a petition to another gentleman, in order to give it a preference of priority, might present another question, and be an invasion of the rule.


Mr. Dawson had been given to understand that such a case had occurred that very morning; a gentleman from New York having passed over a petition to the gentleman from Massachusetts.


Mr. Adams admitted the fact, but he explained it was because the member in question was unable to present it himself.


Mr. Boon took an appeal from the decision of the Chair, and briefly argued the point.


The Chair restated the grounds of his decision, and it was sustained by Messrs. Mercer, Vanderpoel, and Vinton, and opposed by Messrs. Hardin and Lane; when


Mr. Boon said, to save the time of the House, he would withdraw the appeal.


Mr. Chambers, of Kentucky, renewed it, and


Mr. Patterson demanded the previous question.


Mr. Glascock appealed to the mover to withdraw the motion, in order to afford Mr. G. the opportunity of briefly assigning the reasons that would govern him in the vote he was about to give.


Mr. Patterson said he felt compelled to decline acceding to the request.


The previous question was then seconded by the House without a division.


Mr. Glascock asked for the yeas and nays on ordering the main question, but the House refused to order them, and the main question was ordered without a division.


Point of order fails

The main question being, "Shall the decision of the Chair stand as the judgment of the House?" was taken by yeas and nays, (on the motion of Mr. Adams), and decided in the affirmative—yeas 139, nays 29…


So the decision of the Chair was affirmed by the House.


Further petitions

Mr. Adams then proceeded, and further presented abolition petitions from New Hampshire, New York, Michigan, Virginia, (nine ladies in Fredericksburg), &c.


Paper from slaves: does it come under the gag rule?

Mr. Adams next stated that he had in his possession a paper, upon which he wished to have the decision of the Speaker. The paper (he said) came from twenty persons declaring themselves to be slaves. He wished to know whether the Speaker would consider this paper as coming under the rule of the House.


The Chair replied that the gentleman having the paper in his possession was the best judge of the matter, but if the gentleman would send the paper to the Chair he would then decide.


Mr. Adams said, if he sent it to the Chair it would then be in possession of the House whereas he wished to know of the Speaker whether it came under the rule before he presented it. The paper purported to be from slaves; and this was one of those cases, which it had occurred to his own mind was an imposition. The paper was signed partly by persons who could not write, they having made their mark, and partly by persons, judging from the writing, of little education. He would send the paper to the table.


Mr. Lawler objected to its going to the table.


The Chair said as this was a novel case, he would leave it to the House, and take its advice and counsel.


Motion that the petition should not be received

Mr. Haynes was astonished at the course pursued by the gentleman from Massachusetts, not only on this day but on every petition day for some weeks since, but his astonishment had reached a height which he could not express, when the gentleman rose and asked leave to present a paper purporting to come from slaves. He could not tell in what manner a proposition of this kind should be treated, but he had to express his surprise, that the measure should be brought forward. He moved that the petition be not received.


Mr. Lewis. I beg to say that I hope no man coming from the South—


Mr. Haynes. I withdraw my motion.


Vote of any sort offensive to members from the South

Mr. Lewis rose and said, he was glad to hear the gentleman from Georgia withdraw his motion for a rejection of this petition. He hoped no gentleman from a slaveholding State would either argue or vote upon the question of reception. He thought that the Representatives of the slaveholding States should demand that the attempt to introduce such a petition should instantly put in requisition the power of the House to punish the member for such an attempt. If this is not done, and that promptly every member from the slave States should immediately, in a body, quit this House, and go home to their constituents. We have no longer any business here.


Mr. Grantland. I will second the motion for punishment, and go all lengths for it.


Mr. Alford inquired what kind of petition it was that the gentleman from Massachusetts proposed to present. [Loud cries of "He ought to be expelled!"]


The Chair directed the Clerk's minutes to be read, which set forth that it was "the petition of twenty-two persons, declaring themselves to be slaves, and wishes to know whether it comes within the order o the House."


Porposal to burn petition

Mr. Alford said if the member from Massachusetts should insist upon presenting his memorial he would move that it be instantly burnt. [Cries of "No!" "No!" "Expel him!" Expel the mover!"]


No ladies in Fredericksburg signed a previous petition

Mr. Patton then arose, and stated that he had taken occasion to examine another petition presented by the gentleman from Massachusetts, described as coming from nine ladies of the town of Fredericksburg, in Virginia. Mr P. stated there, in his place, as a member, and upon his responsibility, that there was the name of no lady of that town appended to that paper, nor a single name to it which was of decent respectability. He believed, however, they were genuine signatures, for he did recognize among them the name of only one individual, and that was of a free negro or mulatto woman, of notoriously infamous character and reputation. Mr. P accordingly moved a suspension of the rule, for the purpose of enabling him to make a further motion to take that petition from the table, and return it to the gentleman who presented it.


Mr. Robertson asked for the yeas and nays on that motion; which were ordered, and were—yeas 131, nays 50…


So the rule was suspended.


Mr. Patton then submitted the motion indicated above, and reiterated his former statement in reference to the character of the signers of the memorial


Mr. Thompson, of South Carolina, then moved the following resolution, in the form of an amendment to Mr. Patton's motion:


Resolutions for Censure: Adams charged with gross disrespect

Resolved, That the Hon. John Q. Adams, by the attempt just made by him to introduce a petition, purporting on the face to be from slaves, has been guilty of a gross disrespect to this House, and that he instantly be brought to the bar to receive the severe censure of the Speaker.


Mr. T made some remarks in support of his motion.


Mr. Haynes moved the following subsitute:


That John Q. Adams, a Representative from the State of Massachusetts, has rendered himself justly liable to the severest censure of this House; and is censured accordingly, for having attempted to present to this House the petition of slaves.


[Cries of "No!" "No!" Let him be brought to the bar!"]


Mr. H. deemed his amendment preferable to the original resolution, as it was conformable to precedent.


After some remarks at considerable length from Mr. Granger,


Mr. Lewis submitted the following substitute for the original resolution:


Second resolution charges Adams with inciting to insurrection

Resolved, That John Q. Adams, a member from the State of Massachusetts, by his attempt to introduce into this House a petition of slaves for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, committed an outrage on the rights and feelings of a large portion of the people of this Union, a flagrant contempt on the dignity of this House; and by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen, directly incites the slave population to insurrection; and that the said member be forthwith called to the bar of the House, and censured by the Speaker.


This substitute was further continued by Messrs. Wise and Hardin, when


Adams shows his hand

Mr. Adams obtained the floor, and stated that he considered it to be his duty to remain silent while these resolutions, charging him with high crimes, were pending; but gentlemen had gone on consuming the time of the House in such manner that he felt he was under the obligation to rise and ask them to modify their resolutions, because it might be that if he was brought to the bar of the House he would put an end to this resolution from the fact of its erroneous statements.



The resolution charged him with attempting to present a petition from slaves for the abolition of slavery. Mr. A. said he had not attempted to present a petition of the description at all. He had risen in his place, and stated to the Speaker that he had in his possession a paper from persons representing themselves to be slaves; but he had not stated what the object of it was, or what its prayer was; and he had asked the Speaker whether, if he presented this paper, it would be included under the general order of the House, and be laid upon the table accordingly; and he meant to have the decision of the House before he proceeded one step further.


The petition opposes abolition

He had stated to the Speaker that he would not send the paper to the Chair until the question was settled whether it would come under this general rule. As to the fact in relation to the prayer of the petition he would simply state to the gentleman from Alabama, [Mr. Lewis] who had assumed, and sent to the Clerk's table a resolution importing that the petition was for the abolition of slavery, that the gentleman was mistaken, because it was the very reverse of this; and if the gentleman was going to have him brought before the bar of the House, he must amend his resolution.



If the gentleman was about to press his motion, and the House was about to adopt it, they would be under the necessity of seeing what the paper was, and to that he would willingly submit. He would be willing the petition should be received and considered, and he would be willing for almost anything except to grant the prayer of this petition, because the gentleman from Alabama might find that its prayer was precisely what he had been so strenuously contending for.


Fredericksburg again

Mr. A. then went on to reply to some remarks which had fallen from the gentleman from New York, [Mr. Granger;] after which he made a defense of his conduct in presenting the petition of certain persons from Fredericksburg. He contended that the character of the petitioners should not be made the grounds for rejecting petitions, if they were couched in respectful language. All petitions, he contended, should be received, whether they come from the wealthiest individuals in the land, or whether they come from the poorest or lowest in character. The Sultan of a despotic Government was bound to receive the petitions of the vilest of his subjects, and he hoped that no distinction would be made in petitions in a free Government, so long as they were in respectful language.


Continuing debate

The debate was further continued by Mr. Mann, of New York, and Mr. Thompson, of South Carolina, when the latter gentleman submitted the following modification:


Further rewording

Resolved, That the Hon. John Quincy Adams, by an effort to present a petition from slaves, has committed a gross contempt of this House.


Resolved, That the member from Massachusetts, above-named, by creating the impression, and leaving the House under such impression, that said petition was for the abolition of slavery, when he knew it was not, has trifled with the House.


Resolved, That the Hon. John Quincy Adams receive the censure of this House for his conduct referred to in the preceding resolutions.


The debate was further continued by Messrs. Pickens, Cambreleng, Lewis, Glascock, Pinckney, Lawler, Wise, and Jenifer; and on motion of the last gentleman,


The House adjourned.