Silencing Elizabeth Warren: Gag rules have a long, dark history

tags: Elizabeth Warren, Gag rule, Mitch McConnell

Manisha Sinha is the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and the author of "The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition." Unless otherwise noted, facts here reflect this book and its research. 

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren seems to have inherited the mantle and fighting spirit of her predecessors from Massachusetts.

Warren was censured earlier this week by a straight party vote for violating an arcane Senate rule against impugning the character of a colleague. The rebuke came during confirmation hearings for Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions -- whose middle name evokes the Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, notorious for having fired the first shot of the Civil War -- as attorney general of the United States.

In 1836, Southern slaveholders and their Northern allies in the Senate also used a procedural motion to table abolitionist petitions without a hearing, a gag that lasted well into the 1850s. The House of Representatives also passed a gag rule for the automatic tabling of abolitionist petitions. It was strengthened into a standing rule that did not allow these petitions to even be received in 1840 -- and finally repealed in 1844.

Back then, another Bay State representative, former President John Quincy Adams, led the battle against the gagging of abolitionist petitions in the House of Representatives. In the House, Adams used various tactics to foil the gag on the freedom to petition, at one point quickly reading an abolitionist petition before the gag rule could be imposed on him. 

In 1850, when Congress passed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, an abolitionist senator, also from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, began a one-man fight against it. It is also worth recalling that Sen. Sumner was beaten for allegedly impugning the character of Southern slaveholding colleagues in his speeches. ...

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