Historical Highlights

The House censured Claims Committee Chairman Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio

March 22, 1842
The House censured Claims Committee Chairman Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio Image courtesy of Library of Congress Committed to abolitionist ideals, Claims Committee Chairman Joshua Giddings of Ohio resigned in protest after being censured by the House for violating the "gag rule." He won the special election contest for his own seat and re-assumed the Claims Committee Chairmanship.
On this date, the House of Representatives voted 125 to 69 to censure Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio. The chairman violated House rules by introducing a series of resolutions defending a slave rebellion aboard the Creole, a ship that had sailed from Virginia carrying 135 persons to be sold in New Orleans. After taking command of the vessel in a bloody uprising, the slaves sailed for Nassau in the Bahamas, a British port that had outlawed slavery a decade earlier. There, they found refuge when British officials refused to extradite them or charge anyone with manslaughter. The rebellion aboard the Creole occurred during a volatile time in Congress. In the House, as sectional interests began to overshadow party loyalties, southerners and northerners, regardless of party affiliation, tended to vote in regional blocks on issues concerning slavery. Since 1836, in an attempt to uphold party politics and combat divergent sectional interests, the House had regularly approved a rule—otherwise known as the “gag rule”—prohibiting the House from acknowledging anti-slavery petitions or resolutions during legislative business. Giddings broke that rule when he argued “that the persons on board [the Creole], in resuming their natural rights of personal liberty, violated no law of the United States, incurred no legal responsibility, and are justly liable to no punishment.” The United States had no right to “regain possession of, or to re-enslave” those aboard the Creole, he said, and furthermore, any attempt to do so would demonstrate America’s complicity in with the international slave trade. The House refused to vote on his resolutions, and censured Giddings instead. Led by John Minor Botts of Virginia, the House held “the conduct of the said member as altogether unwarranted,” arguing that it was “the duty of every selected agent and representative of the people, to discountenance all efforts to create excitement, dissatisfaction, and division among the people of the United States at such a time, and under such circumstances.” Giddings resigned in protest from the House later that day, giving up his chairmanship of the Committee on Claims. On April 26, 1842, his constituents elected him in a special election to fill his own vacancy, and reassumed his chairmanship on the Committee on Claims. The gag rule remained in effect for two more years until John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts petitioned for and won its repeal on December 3, 1844.

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