Historical Highlights

Vermont Representative William Slade’s Antislavery Speech in the 25th Congress

December 20, 1837
Vermont Representative William Slade’s Antislavery Speech in the 25th Congress Image courtesy of Library of Congress This 1839 cartoon provides a satire on the "gag rule" in the House of Representatives. Representative John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts is featured pinned to the ground protecting petitions against slavery.
On this date, William Slade of Vermont caused the House to adjourn when he attempted to give a speech “on the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia.” Two days earlier, he had introduced a petition from his constituents on the same subject but refrained from going any further. The problem, said Slade, was that “no sooner did any member present a memorial relating in the slightest degree to a certain subject, the abolition of slavery, than it was directly attacked and placed under prohibition.” For more than a year, a new House rule had maintained that discussions about slavery and abolition were too contentious for debate during formal House business. Known as the “gag rule,” the provision intended to uphold party politics and prevent slavery from dividing the House into northern and southern voting blocks. Hugh Swinton Legaré, a Democrat from South Carolina, asked Slade to “consider well what he was about” because if the question of abolition “was forced upon the people of the South, they would be ready to take up the gauntlet.” Nevertheless, Slade continued to speak. As southern Members grew more irritated, Henry Alexander Wise of Virginia interrupted Slade and asked that the Virginia delegation retire from the hall. One by one, southern state delegations withdrew from House Floor, until Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina asked that all southern Members and those “representing slaveholding interests” convene in a nearby committee room in protest. The next day, John Mercer Patton of Virginia, submitted the resolution “that all petitions, memorials, and papers, touching the abolition of slavery, or the buying, selling, or transferring of slaves, in any State, District, or Territory, of the United States, be laid on the table, without being debated, printed, read, or referred, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.” John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, who opposed the gag rule, tried to speak out against the measure, but was shouted down repeatedly with cries of “Order!” The measure forbidding petitions on subjects concerning slavery and abolition passed the House 122 for to 74 against. When Adams voted he railed, “I hold the resolution to be in violation of the Constitution of the United States.” As before, other Members shouted Adams down with cries of “Order!” The House reinstated the gag rule during each Congress from May 18, 1836, to December 3, 1844, when Adams finally managed to gather enough support to repeal the rule.

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