News & Politics

McConnell's 'Gag Rule' for Warren Echoes the Slavery Debate

A similar debate roiled Congress 181 years ago this week.

Gagged: Massachusetts Congressman and former president John Quincy Adams
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The honor of Congress was at stake, said the esteemed legislative leader from a southern red state.

The people have the right to petition the Congress for redress of human rights grievances, replied an equally esteemed statesman from a northeastern blue state.

The majority of the Congress then ruled the liberal statesman out of order and struck his remarks from the official record.

No, I'm not talking about Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans' decision Tuesday to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren for quoting from Coretta Scott King's blistering 1986 letter about Attorney General Jeff Sessions' racist politics. I'm talking about a similar debate that roiled Congress 181 years ago this week. At that time, Rep. Henry Pinckney of South Carolina and the conservative majority of Congress sought to silence Rep. John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts for quoting from constituent petitions calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. 

While on Wednesday, pundits focused on the implications of McConnell's actions for Warren's 2020 presidential ambitions and for the embattled Trump administration, the long arc of American history demonstrates that the current debate in Congress over Jeff Sessions' racialized politics is nothing new. In fact, the silencing of Warren is just the latest chapter in one of the most enduring conflicts in American politics: the red state-blue state struggle over civil rights. 

In the 1830s, Andrew Jackson was president, and the Congress was, in the brilliant account of historian William Lee Miller, "Arguing About Slavery." Today Donald Trump sits in an Oval Office adorned with a portrait of Jackson, and the Congress is arguing about the legacy of slavery and racism. The political dynamics, then and now, have certain parallels.

Back then, the Jacksonian majority in Congress sought to extirpate any trace of the anti-slavery petitions. Today the Trumpian majority seeks to eliminate any accusation of racism.

Like Trump and the Republican Congress in 2017, President Jackson and the conservative congressional majority faced an unprecedented outpouring of popular opposition to their agenda in 1836. Anti-slavery societies were springing up across the northern tier of the country. When the American Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1833, it had 10 chapters mostly in Massachusetts. Two years later, the free blacks of the North had organized themselves in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and there were 200 anti-slavery societies from Ohio to Maine. Their common demand was the abolition of slavery in the nation's capital.

Just as Trump seeks to govern in the style of Jackson, his opposition claims the moral high ground with the passion of the abolitionists. And just as McConnell legislates like Pinckney, Warren voices principled opposition in the prophetic mode of Adams.

In the words often attributed to (but apparently never spoken by) Mark Twain, "History doesn't repeat itself; it rhymes."

The Original Gag Rule

McConnell's gag rule, like Pinckney's gag rule, was intended to stifle a burgeoning popular movement and keep its increasingly effective arguments from reaching the floor of Congress.

The original "gag rule," as the press dubbed it, was written on Feb. 8, 1836, when a special Committee in the House of Representatives, chaired by Pinckney, recommended the following resolution:

“That all petitions, memorial, resolutions, propositions or papers, relating in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid upon the table and that further action whatever shall be had thereon.”

Five months later, the House approved the rule. Adams was forbidden from challenging the slaveholding order, but he did not rest. There was no Twitter in 1836. There was no #LetJQAspeak hashtag. But there was an outpouring of public support for the former president and his creative and stalwart defense of American rights.

As recounted in "Arguing Against Slavery," Adams threw himself into struggle against southern tyranny with the same sort of formidable parliamentary skills that Elizabeth Warren brought to Wednesday's struggle. He battled the slaveholders for the next three sessions of Congress to vindicate the right of the people to petition Congress.

If history is any guide, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the new John Quincy Adams, the leader of a principled congressional minority defending the exercise of American rights against those who would excise them from the annals of Congress.

Jefferson Morley is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. He is the author of the forthcoming biography The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press, October 2017) and the 2016 Kindle ebook CIA and JFK: The Secret Assassination Files.

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