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JQA and the Gag Rule Debates

The new year began like the old year went out—with more controversy. And it began with Adams. On January 4, 1836, he presented the petitions of 153 inhabitants of Millbury, Massachusetts, praying for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Adams stated it was his intention to “move that, without reading, it should be laid on the table.” Adams was instantly interrupted by his neighbor John M. Patton of Virginia, who inquired whether the petition had been received, to which the Speaker answered it had not. Thomas Glascock of Georgia then the moved that the petition not be received, “and was proceeding to make a speech, when I called him to order, and appealing to the forty-fifth rule of the House, which prescribes that there shall be no debate upon petitions on the day when they are presented, I demanded that the debate should now be postponed to a day certain.” But Speaker James Polk ruled that this provision did not apply to this particular case, and the petition was not “in the possession of the House.” Adams, of course, appealed the Chair’s ruling and asked for the yeas and nays, which was ordered, and “a debate arose upon the appeal, which consumed the entire day.” The House had dissolved into a parliamentary entanglement, and before the question could be decided, the House adjourned.

Two days later, on January 6, Glascock presented a resolution in which “any attempt to agitate the questions of slavery in this House, is calculated to disturb the compromises of the constitution, to endanger the Union, and if persisted in, to destroy, by a servile war, the peace and prosperity of this country.” It was becoming clear to Adams and to others that it was no longer feasible to dispose of petitions to committees as before, as Southerners began to react to petitions on slavery in the District with hostility and equate them to abolitionist mailings. Suppression of petitions would be the next step, and the constitutionality of such a step was clearly at issue.



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