The Gag Rule, III: Mr. Johnson’s Ironic Intransigence

While National Democrats felt a victor’s elation at the gag rule settlement, South Carolinians again suffered a loser’s dismay. Seldom have losers won so much or made winners pay so dearly for a triumph. While South Carolinians had lost Hammond’s language, Cooper’s objectives, Calhoun’s intentions, they had put pressure on their big hate, both national parties. How ironic, then, that South Carolina’s first gag rule postmortem centered on what the latest failure meant.


To Thomas Cooper’s crowd in Columbia, the moderates’ capture of James Hammond’s initiative meant that disunion was more necessary and yet more implausible than ever. “The division of opinion” between “slave states paralyzes us,” Cooper fumed to William Preston. “We are ready and willing to … cut the knot if needful, and quickly too. We think we can depend on being followed by Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. If so, I would cut cables and steer away.”1

That “if” illuminated a plotter far from cutting cables. Cooper’s word, “paralyze,” captured the only Southerners ready to “cut the knot” of Union. The only nonparalyzed Disunionist, Governor George McDuffie of Forty Bale fame, could find only one outlet for his frustrated energies. The governor built up the army. “I regard a separation from the Union as an event absolutely inevitable,” McDuffie wrote privately at the end of 1836. “For two years,” he had been “preparing the state for every possible emergency.” Fighting words, those, but how could the governor pick a fight for trainees?2

John C. Calhoun urged a better way to fight. Calhoun conceded that Yankee fanatics exerted a “baneful influence.” He agreed that disunion might “be the consequence.” But he stuck with “the supposition that the country and government may be regenerated and the Union saved.”

Calhoun’s supposition still required Southerners to secede from compromising parties. He still wanted an ensuing southern convention to lay down uncompromising ultimatums. He still believed that Northerners, once convinced slaveholders were in earnest, would grant every concession. Otherwise, his convention should go through with Cooper’s disunion. “If possible, let us save the liberty of all; but, if not, our own at all events; and by aiming honestly and fairly at the former, we shall the more certainly, if we fail, succeed in the latter.” He differed from more disunionist friends not because “I am more certain of success in our political efforts to save the country and its institutions” but because “I am less certain of defeat.”3

Not more certain the Union could endure but less certain it would fail! That distinction made Calhoun no Father of Secession! If the criterion be results rather than intentions, incredulity is justified. Calhoun’s contributions to sectional conflict, especially making nullification and gag rules and attempts to split national parties intellectually respectable, put Union under wicked strain. But Calhoun always expected this strain to save rather than snap national ties. He always conceived that Yankee capitalists and politicians, once forced to choose between plunging into Civil War over despised “niggers” or joining slaveholders in a victorious new national coalition, would act as racist materialists should.

Calhoun’s post-gag rule letter to his cherished daughter, Anna Marie, demonstrates how this alleged Father of Secession would have scorned that title. “You say it is better to part peaceably at once,” noted the father, “than to live in the state of irritation we do.” But that “natural and common conclusion” ignores “how many bleeding pores must be taken up in passing the knife … through a body politick.” South Carolina must accordingly “resort to every probable means of arresting the evil, and only act, when all has been done, that can be.” Then “we shall stand justified before God and man.” Anything else will ruin us, for making “two people of one” remains “the most difficult process in the world.”4


Calhoun’s initial difficulty remained passing the knife through national parties. Outside South Carolina after Pinckney’s victory over Hammond, slaveholders never debated secession from party much less from the Union. Nor did southern two-party politicians join anti-party Carolinians in concentrating unendingly on gag rule distractions. Much southern campaign rhetoric focused on whether King Andrew should be allowed to hand an imperial presidency to his henchman, the manipulative Little Magician.5 The question of whether Jackson was a dangerous Caesar, like the oft-discussed issue between Oppositionists/Whigs and Democrats of whether governments local or national should boost a sometimes booming, sometimes panicky market economy, knew no North or South. Such nonsectional issues strengthed the emerging Second American Party System, that competition between two national parties which would dominate American political discourse between 1836 and 1853. Occasional southern uproars over loyalty and gag rules, on the other hand, weakened everything national.

When southern two-party politicians beyond South Carolina sporadically debated Pinckney’s compromise gag rule, the terms of debate dismayed uncompromising extremists. Southern Oppositionists and Democrats differed over which impure party was least compromised on the rule. Southern Democrats bragged that Northern Democrats had helped Southerners pass both Buchanan’s Senate and Van Buren’s House silencer. In contrast, Northern Oppositionists had voted against all gags. Worse, Daniel Webster, one of Northern Oppositionists’ presidential candidates, had been one of those six New England senators who had stonewalled against the Democrats’ James Buchanan’s almost total gag rule. Which Southerners stood allied with the most unsound northern wing?

Southern Oppositionists answered that Van Buren’s phony soundness was more dangerous than explicit unsoundness. The New Yorker’s sieve of a gag rule compromised all Southerners who settled for it. Hugh Lawson White and John Tyler, uncompromising slaveholders to the manor born, would be safer for slavery than a Yankee illusionist, who could not camouflage his resentment of the Slavepower.

With that rhetoric, Middle and Deep South Oppositionists sustained their effective 1835 argument that Van Buren, compromising Yankee, was less safe for slavery than Hugh White, uncompromising southern ex-Jacksonian. Partly because of that emphasis on loyalty, partly because White successfully emphasized the Jackson-as-Caesar theme, partly because Caesar dictated to the southern people a squirt of a too-clever magician as successor, Democrats came close to losing a South they had practically monopolized. In the entire South, where Democrats had won 66% of the popular votes in 1828 and 60% in 1832, Van Buren was barely ahead in 1836, with 50% of the ballots. In the Electoral College, where Jackson had won 85% of southern votes in 1828 and 79% in 1832, Van Buren squeaked by with 53% of slaveholding states’ support. That margin, while now enough to continue Jacksonian control of the White House, was not remotely enough to guarantee future Jacksonian control of the South.

The shifting southern balance of power masked one constant. The Border South enjoyed politics as usual in 1836, with the Opposition Party once again winning and state aid to a market economy once again popular. In 1836 along the border, little was heard about loyalty to gag rules or whether Hugh Lawson White was to the manor born. Economic boosterism remained the focal point of interest here. Except in Missouri, border Oppositionists shunned the more states’ rights Oppositionist candidate, Hugh White, and backed the more nationalistic William Henry Harrison. Harrison carried the same Border South states Clay had won in 1832: Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland. White in 1836, like Clay four years earlier, lost Missouri.

South of the Border South, nothing was the same. In the Middle South, where Jackson had secured 70% of popular votes in 1828 and 80% in 1832, Van Buren mustered but 50.4% of the tally. In the Deep South, where Old Hickory had swept 86% of citizens’ favor in 1828 and 79% in 1832, the Little Magician received only 51.5% of the count. In 1836, Southern Oppositionists won their first Middle South state ever, Tennessee, and their first Deep South state ever, Georgia. Van Buren’s largest Deep South margin was in Alabama, where his whopping 57% of the tally still compared dismally with Jackson’s 90% support in 1828 and 100% sweep in 1832. In Louisiana, where Adams and Clay had carried an average of 43% of voters in the two Jackson campaigns, White increased the Oppositionist percentage to 48.6% in 1836. Oppositionists’ gains were still more dramatic in Mississippi, where Jackson had secured 81% of the votes in 1828 and 100% in 1832. Van Buren managed to win only 50.7% of Mississippi votes. A shift of only 146 of 19,667 Mississippi voters and 136 of 7,036 Louisiana voters would have given Hugh White three Deep South states. Van Buren then would have retained only Alabama in Deep South areas Jackson had monopolized. The South was indeed a land politically transformed.6


These sudden changes, along with less dramatic evolutions in the later 1830s, yielded stability by 1840. In each state and county thereafter, only slight shifts in voting results usually occurred, with victory or defeat usually dependent on tiny changes in voter turnout and/or voter preference. As in 1836, Oppositionists/Whigs would usually have a small lead in the Border South, Democrats would usually attain a small lead in the Lower South, and the Middle South would usually split down the middle.

Total popular votes in national House of Representative elections, 1836–53, supply an excellent illustration.7 When results of all congressional elections in this period are added up, Oppositionists/Whigs emerge with a three-percentage-point lead in Border South popular votes. Oppositionists/Whigs won a total of 112 Border South House seats during these years, while Democrats secured 90. In the Lower South, in contrast, the same tally over the same years yields Democrats a three-percentage-point lead in popular votes and 185 House seats to Oppositionists/Whigs’ 77. The total popular vote for the two parties’ House candidates in the Middle South over the 16 years was almost a dead heat, although Democrats won 217 to the Whigs’ 138 seats. Andrew Jackson’s initial pattern of relatively greater strength southwards and relatively greater weakness northwards in the South, while remaining visible, had become fainter everywhere and almost invisible towards the center.

The election of 1836 pointed towards stable and close alignments in the North too, making the newly-stable southern structure part of a new national solidity. In the North no less than in the South, Oppositionists/Whigs were usually slightly stronger northward, Democrats usually slightly stronger southward. The tier of northern states farthest south, touching on slaveholding states, will here be called the Lower North. The rest of the free states will be called the Upper North. The Upper North, especially New England, had experienced slavery least, had abolished it easiest, and had the longest historical experience with that Puritan/Federalist ideal of Christian organic community which Oppositionists/Whigs inherited. The Lower North, farthest from New England and closest to the South, had possessed slavery recently, had abolished it after hard battle, and was more into the Jacksonian ideal of free-spirited individualists than worshipful of a Whiggish state-fostered community.

As a result, Oppositionists/Whigs were usually slightly stronger in the Upper North, where they attained an almost four-point percentage lead in total congressional votes cast over the 1836–53 period and won 327 seats compared with Democrats’ 307. Democrats were usually a little stronger in the Lower North, with a four-point percentage lead in this area’s total votes for congressmen and 338 seats to Whigs’ 227. These voting patterns explain much about pre-Civil War political activity: why Lower North Democrats more readily submitted to southern pressure than did Upper North Democrats, why Republicans swept the Upper North but lost key Lower North states in 1856, and why Abraham Lincoln talked more radically in northern than in southern Illinois when debating Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. The slight but critical verbal difference between the Lower North’s Buchanan and the Upper North’s Van Buren on the gag rule prefigured lasting statistical differences between their slightly different Norths.

Statistics on the Southern and National Second American Party systems also illuminate where instabilities lay. Southern states’ righters were stuck in an Opposition/Whig Party which leaned the northern way both North and South. They were more vulnerable than Democrats in southern politics because less likely to make their more northerly strongholds budge. If loyalty pressures or their own ideology led States’ Rights Whigs to lay down ultimatums on slavery issues, they might have to bid farewell to the Whig Party. The far more numerous centrist Southern Whigs would be only a little less uncomfortable should slavery issues become obsessive, for Upper North Yankees could not abide appeasing the Slavepower.

The Democratic Party was more likely to bend southward, because of its strength in the Lower South and in James Buchanan’s appeasing Lower North. Still, the party in general and Martin Van Buren’s Upper North faction in particular preferred to duck slavery agitations and to call Oppositionists/Whigs undemocratic on everything else. Unless Van Buren could keep slavery issues such as the gag rule a sideshow, he would be as uncomfortable inside the Democratic Party as states’ righters would be inside the Whig Party.


Yankee Whigs were dedicated to increasing Van Buren’s discomfort. Why would a true-blue American freeman gag discussion on the white side of the color line? That was Northern Whigs’ lethal question. Obstacles to constituents’ right to petition congressmen must be scuttled. That was Northern Oppositionists’ ever-present response to Northern Democrats’ claim to be more democratic than their opponents.

One Yankee political titan epitomized the way that stance mocked Jacksonian so-called Democracy. In 1828, Jacksonians had pilloried John Quincy Adams as a Harvard-trained elitist, not fit to rule over an increasingly egalitarian age. But as Adams saw his electoral defeat, “the sable genius of the South” had undemocratically destroyed “the great object of my life.” The majority North had voted to re-elect him. But the minority South, anxious to “rivet into perpetuity the clanking chain of the Slave,” had torn down all his efforts to promote “national means and national Energies.”8

The minority South had once before torn a Yankee nationalist from the people’s presidency, remembered Adams the younger. The three-fifths clause had defeated his father in the presidential election of 1800. Now masters of America’s most undemocratic institution had spread the monstrosity that he was undemocratic!

In American culture, old Presidents, like old generals, usually fade away or write memoirs. John Quincy Adams was an exception. Adams, once evicted from the White House, could not win vindication while languishing on his delapidated Massachusetts farm. His debts were large. His land was unsalable. His floundering grist and flour mill ate into his waning estate.

Financial uncertainty plus political disaster made the exiled ex-President a household terror. His warmly affectionate wife writhed under his coldly forbidding treatment. His confused and unhealthy sons cracked beneath his overbearing expectations. Within a year of his presidential defeat, his eldest son committed suicide. Within five more years, the son carrying on the name John Adams, haplessly struggling to save the family mill business, died too. Through it all, his one effective offspring, Charles Francis, tried to salvage the family estate by putting father on an allowance. The patriarch thanked the son with a verbal scorching.

If it was tough to live with John Quincy Adams through his afflictions, the rejected politician was toughest on himself. The righteous New Englander scrutinized his soul for sins which had brought him down. At the same time, he excoriated selfish sinners who had crushed his selfless crusades. His small frame was covered with eruptions of boils and pimples. His bold, bald head was crimson with fury.

In 1830, his impossible retirement ended. His neighbors called him to the national House of Representatives. Adams accepted demotion from President to freshman congressman partly out of financial need, more because he relished the political stage, and mostly because he craved revenge. He would appeal Jacksonian “Democracy”’s judgment that nationalists were undemocratic. He would overturn slaveholders’ victory over democratic nationalism.

Although not publicly an abolitionist, he had long since privately prophesied how some Abraham Lincoln would decree emancipation. At the time of the Missouri Crisis, he had secretly written that if the South severed the Union over slavery, the nation would sever slavery out of military necessity. As “calamitous and desolating as this course of events in its progress must be,” scribbled the puritan, “so glorious would be its final issue, that, as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired.”9

John Quincy Adams came to Congress a decade later, still unsure how the Lord would judge those who desired the catastrophe. At the very least, the republic must not crack until its stronger half could crush the lesser. At his most responsible, the statesman must endeavor to rescue republicanism peaceably from the Slavepower.

The task demanded the diplomatic cunning which had made the pre-presidential Adams a triumphant administrator of foreign policy. The presidential Adams, who had undiplomatically insisted on unpassable nationalist legislation, died with his presidency. Adams saw that the conqueror of the Slavepower must be carefully diplomatic about abolishing black slavery and endlessly relentless about saving white republicanism.

John Quincy Adams’s first congressional act showed that the old diplomat had recovered diplomatic savvy. In December 1831, Massachusetts’s fledgling representative presented 15 petitions praying for abolition of both slavery and the slave trade in Washington. After introducing the petitions, Adams opposed most of the prayers. He would rid the District of slave auctions but not of slaves.

No Southerner rose to call this too much antislavery. When a Yankee philanthropist wrote to object that Adams was not antislavery enough, the ex-President answered that he opposed stirring up North against South. He was delighted that events were “tending to universal emancipation.” But Southerners, not a Yankee, must do the emancipating.10

When more antislavery petitions descended on Washington in 1836, John Quincy Adams continued to scold abolitionists for interfering with emancipation. Fanatics could not rally the North and would counterproductively enrage the South.11 But he would fight for agitators’ right to petition. Representatives must debate the represented’s requests, lest the House of Representatives become fatally unrepresentative.

The Pinckney Gag Rule had not even been passed before Adams rose to defend white democracy. After Henry L. Pinckney brought up his committee’s recommendations and after several Southerners explained why Pinckney proposed gagging too little, Adams explained why any silencing was too much. Before he could proceed, a Georgian moved that the House immediately vote on the Pinckney Gag Rule. “Am I gagged or not?” asked the Massachusetts congressman. The House voted to gag Adams by calling the question. Representatives then voted to gag Adams’s constituents by ordering antislavery petitions automatically tabled.12

Old Man Eloquent would not allow white men to remain gagged. He was forever finding ways to dodge around the congressional ban and debate whether debate should be allowed. He remained careful not to discuss whether slavery should be abolished. He candidly declared his personal preference for freedom. He even introduced constitutional amendments for emancipation in the South. He saw, however, no hope at present for such amendments and little prospect for ending slavery in the capital. He continued to ask abolitionists, privately and publicly, to cease petitioning for the politically impossible.

He also continued to emphasize the democratic impossibility of gagging unfortunate opinion. His strategy was to question day after day, session after session, whether the latest petition he held in his hand came under the gag rule. His most notorious question, raised on February 6, 1837, concerned whether “a petition from 22 persons, declaring themselves to be slaves,” could be presented.13

The Speaker of the House asked to see Adams’s petition from slaves. Before the Speaker could rule, Waddy Thompson of South Carolina declared that Adams ought to be imprisoned. Fomenting insurrection was illegal, warned the South Carolinian. The madman from Massachusetts should not expect legal indemnity because his insanity spilled forth in Congress. When this “sanctuary is used to throw poisoned arrows, it ceases to be sacred.” Thompson moved to censure Adams.14

South Carolina’s Waddy Thompson, like Virginia’s Henry Wise, was at the states’ rights extreme of the lately called Oppositionist, now called Whig, movement. Thompson’s diatribe against Adams, like Wise’s earlier diatribe against Henry L. Pinckney, was the natural outcome of the southern faction’s unnatural position. John Quincy Adams’s intransigent opposition to Slavepower proposals, like the National Democratic Party’s ability to pass some of those proposals, mocked States’ Rights Whigs’ argument that their national party could best fight for slavery. National Whiggery could hardly outdo the Democracy if that notorious anti-Southerner, the infuriating Adams, spoke for Northern Whigs.

In 1837, Adams answered Thompson’s censure motion by revealing that the 22 slaves petitioned to remain enslaved! Should he be indicted for helping slaves retain bonds? Titters filled the House chamber. Thompson, furious, asked whether it is “a light thing, for the amusement of others, to irritate, almost to madness, the whole delegation from the slaveholding states.”15

Adams, having made a comic character of the sputtering fire-eater, soon twisted the knife in the ridiculous creature. He asked Waddy Thompson “to study a little the first principles of civil liberty.” A member of Congress should be indicted for presenting a petition? “If that, sir, is the law of South Carolina,” climaxed the inexorable Mr. Adams, “I thank God I am not a citizen of South Carolina.”16

This time not giggles but “great agitation,” the clerk recorded, filled the House. Adams, with his usual cunning, had focused agitation on slaveholders’ limits on white liberties. Adams’s focus caused Northerners to run away from Waddy Thompson. The House rejected Thompson’s motion to censure Adams, 105–21.17

Hardly a congressional day went by thereafter without Adams mocking the gag rule and making Southerners debate supposedly gagged debates. Ineffective and anti-republican gag rules became increasingly unpopular in the North. Still, during the late 1830s, most Northern Democrats continued to vote with Southern Democrats to receive, then table, antislavery petitions. In December 1837, and again in December 1838, the House affirmed gags similar to Henry L. Pinckney’s by majorities almost identical in makeup and numbers to Pinckney’s coalition.18

Northern Democrats denied Adams’s contention that their repeated votes for gag rules branded them as slaves of the Slavepower. Most Southerners still wished a rule whereby prayers could not be received. Instead, Northerners approved one whereby petitions were received, then tabled. To the retort that this was a distinction without a difference, Northern Democrats could answer that the difference meant much to the Slavepower. Besides, nothing was undemocratic about receiving a constituent’s petition and then tabling it, if too few constituents wanted action. Slave of the Slavepower? The reception/tabling distinction showed this was another of Adams’s lies.


Then in 1840, a gag rule tailored to James Hammond’s specifications obliterated Northern Democrats’ saving distinction. The new uncompromising rule of 1840, like Pinckney’s old compromising one of 1836, stemmed in part from the usual presidential-year escalation of southern loyalty politics. In 1836, Oppositionists further southward had finessed the “untrue to the South” accusation by supporting that southern ticket, Tennessee’s Hugh Lawson White and Virginia’s John Tyler, against New York’s Magician and his illusionary gag rule. Now in 1840, President Van Buren, having completed the states’ rights rout of the national bank, was running for re-election against the more nationalistic Southern Oppositionists’ candidate in 1836, Indiana’s William Henry Harrison. Harrison was known to favor a nationalistic economic program. Worse, the nationalistic Harrison had earlier proposed national action to colonize slaves.

Harrison’s dubiousness, from southern purists’ perspective, seemed so obvious to John C. Calhoun that the South Carolinian momentarily suspended his war against Van Buren. He urged supporters to spend this election back in the Democratic Party.19 Calhoun’s return to the Democracy, if perhaps only for one election, left States’ Rights Whigs the more vulnerable to charges of disloyalty. In this uneasy atmosphere, only a few weeks after William Henry Harrison’s nomination, the House of Representatives reconsidered Henry L. Pinckney’s compromise gag rule. As John Quincy Adams remembered the “somewhat strange, not to say edifying scenes which took place in this House under those mutual cries of Abolitionism,” gentlemen “were anxious above all things not to be thought Abolitionists, and most especially the members from the South.”20

Most especially Congressman Waddy Thompson of South Carolina. When John C. Calhoun took snuff, so it was said, South Carolina sneezed. Well, Calhoun had called for Van Buren’s election on good states’ rights principle, and Thompson still held out for Whiggery and Harrison. Thompson knew how dubious was the case for rejecting Calhoun’s lead. Thompson was full of “repugnance” for General Harrison’s “supposed latitudinarianism.” He well knew “the ultraism of a large portion of the Whig Party.” He had tried to censor that worst of Whigs, John Quincy Adams.

But “the first duty of patriotism,” claimed Waddy Thompson, was to drive out Martin Van Buren’s “reckless, ignorant, unprincipled pack.” Subsequently, “in our own good time,” Whigs could settle “our family disputes.” Thompson would focus on Van Buren’s “corruption, incompetency, and misrule” rather than answer “false and insulting accusations” that by cooperating with Northern Whigs in the election, he pledged “to support” Northern Whig measures.21

In January of 1840, Waddy Thompson focused on the compromised Van Buren/Pinckney Gag Rule by introducing an uncompromising rule. Thompson’s phrasing was turgid and confusing. But the drift of his tortured language was that the House should refuse to receive petitions instead of automatically tabling them.22 Thompson demanded that Southern Democrats prove their loyalty by supporting his uncompromising rule. Or would Southern Van Burenites, determined to continue their alliance with phony northern friends, prefer instead Van Buren’s compromised gag rule?

Southern Democrats, seeking to evade Waddy Thompson’s litmus test of southern loyalty, preferred to debate William Henry Harrison’s disloyalty. Congressman Sampson H. Butler emphasized that in 1833 Harrison had suggested using surplus federal revenues for colonization-emancipation. “With this declaration staring him in the face, how could any southern man support” the Yankee nationalist?23

Congressman Jesse Bynum of North Carolina furthered Butler’s question. Bynum admitted that “five or ten” House Democrats were “in the Abolition ranks.” But Bynum saw “65 to 75 deeply died Abolitionists” among Northern Whig congressmen. Bynum did not know whether William Henry Harrison “was an abolitionist.” But Harrison “would have to depend” on John Quincy Adams’s northern faction “for his election.” Hence the danger in Harrison’s statement that “if my vote would effect it, every surplus dollar would be appropriated” for colonization/emancipation. Southern Whigs, warned Bynum, should “ponder well this language.”

Bynum’s offensive provoked a Maryland Whig congressman, William Cost Johnson, into the ultimate gag rule counteroffensive.25 The Marylander introduced the resolution that “no petition … praying the abolition of slavery” anywhere “shall be received by this House.” Waddy Thompson’s verbal meandering towards the same non-reception policy, worried Johnson, might allow Southerners to wander from duty. But Johnson’s straightforward language permitted no evasion.

Democrats such as Jesse Bynum, scoffed Johnson, considered any Southerner who supported Harrison “either an abolitionist or an accessory to abolitionism.” These demagogues, steamed the Marylander, “may call me enemy to the South.” But their Pinckney Gag Rule “went the whole length and breadth of abolition.” By receiving antislavery petitions, the House “virtually” invites “abolitionists to send their petitions here.” The Pinckney sieve of a gag rule attempted “solely to entrap the South into support of the Administration, by pretending that a gentleman of the North … had taken the South under his special care.”

Johnson would “not be so unjust as to say that every gentleman who differs with me on this question is an abolitionist.” But Southerners must now “vote with me on a proposition which will admit of no doubtful construction.” Or would Southern Democrats prefer to demonstrate that their southern zeal was counterfeit?

Why would William Cost Johnson, of all people, insist on the James Hammond/Waddy Thompson gag rule language? Johnson was nothing like a Waddy Thompson-style States’ Rights Whig, much less a James Hammondstyle South Carolina quasi-disunionist. The author of the perfected gag rule was instead a Henry Clay economic nationalist and a Maryland advocate of diffusing away slavery. William Cost Johnson represented North Maryland’s Frederick District, just east of the western mountains. Johnson’s constituents owned less than 10% slaves, the lowest percentage in increasingly-less-enslaved North Maryland. Johnson and his constituents revered permanent Union more than “temporary” slavery. “Debate upon this question must cease in this Hall,” declared Johnson, “or the Union will, sooner or later, be dissolved.”

He would also gag national antislavery discussion to hasten state removal of blacks. He refused to discuss “whether slavery is or is not a moral, social, or political evil. That question was properly discussed only in the state legislatures.” Still, Johnson bragged that no other legislature, “not even the loudest and noisiest about abolition, has done as much as Maryland towards emancipation. … With munificent liberality, she has founded a colony in Africa, at the expense of some $200,000.”

Johnson charged abolitionists with delaying “abolition in Maryland at least a century.” Without outside agitation, inside reformers might “have gradually and quietly terminated” the temporary evil. He could not say how much longer Africans would now be “held in servitude.” But he could say that black savages, arriving in America “little superior to the orangutan,” had “become civilized, humanized, and christianized” under the Domestic Institution. “Philanthropists” were sending back to the Dark Continent “a changed being, with a knowledge of law, moral, and religious duty.” Someday, returning ex-slaves may “change the nature of their own wild race at home, and make all Africa a land of civil and religious liberty.”

When so soaring, William Cost Johnson sounded like William Henry Harrison, proposing national funds to colonize ex-slaves. Then was not this Maryland visionary untrue to the South, in his longings to diffuse slaves away and in his backing of his true brother, Harrison the colonizer? No no no, Johnson screamed at tormentors. My sort is true on the southern subject, that the North must impose nothing on the South. Borderites might not be as vehement on many slavery subjects as slaveholders further south. But Marylanders seeking to return blacks to Africa rivaled Lower South slaveholders in loathing outsiders who “would, in dreamy mysticism, indulge a sickly sentimentality for the imaginary benefit of remote communities.” Should Yankee fanatics “require and force a dissolution,” the South could count on Maryland. If anyone thought a Marylander false, let them prove themselves as true by voting for his ultra anti-abolitionism.

Johnson’s test of loyalty was more than an act of crass partisanship, although the Whig enjoyed twisting the knife in the Democratic Party. The Johnson Gag Rule was also more than an expression of Maryland’s quasi-emancipationist ultra-Unionism, although the deepest fears about proslavery disunionism were on display. Johnson’s resolution was above all a statement that border Southerners were southern too. The North Marylander, who was about to run for governor, was driven to prove his southernness because Southern Democrats’ charge of disloyalty might be believed, especially by South Maryland voters. Johnson was assuredly not rock-hard on slavery, if hardness meant determination to resist internal reform. The resulting political vulnerability drove the southern softheart to a vehement stand against antislavery Northerners. And the vehemence of the William Cost Johnsons meant that at least on the subject of overt Yankee abolitionists, there was indeed a South.

With a classic border drifter forcing John C. Calhoun’s anti-abolitionist language on Congress, were the Jesse Bynums acting responsibly in baiting the William Cost Johnsons for alleged disloyalty? Absolutely, assuming a ruling class is responsible for saving itself. William Cost Johnson in 1840, like Benjamin Howard battling for the Pinckney Gag Rule in 1836, was looking for ways, especially colonization, to diffuse blacks slowly away. Both Marylanders would have fought to the death for slavery only after some self-righteous outsider had committed some forcible overt act, suddenly emancipating blacks.

Slave perpetualists expected no such outrageous act. Yankee assaults would come Cuffee-like, disguised and camouflaged. Underminers, like Cuffee, would take up poses Southerners themselves applauded. Throughout the Upper South, in theory in Virginia and in legislation in Maryland, slaveholders had sought a slow end to slavery through colonization. Henry Clay, like Thomas Jefferson, had urged national funds to make black removal more practicable. William Henry Harrison had toyed with the scheme. William Cost Johnson approved it. Would the Johnsons fight to the death for the Deep South if some northern gentleman, with malice towards none and charity for all, helped actualize the Upper South’s own whitening dream? Or to put the question already omnipresent in colonization struggles and someday to be pivotal in the Civil War, was a border world which hoped to diffuse away slavery southern or northern?

Slaveholding perpetualists residing further southwards possessed impoverished means of mastering the answer. An overweening South Carolinian could not lynch a Marylander or, after the nullification debacle, nullify the waverer. Despots without blood and iron could only slap softhearts around with “mere” words.

Loaded words remained a potent way to deter Southerners from drifting. In a relaxed democratic atmosphere, with all ideas discussable without accusations of treason, the many William Johnsons would have been free to seek out the many Northerners sympathetic with the movement towards a lily-white labor force, with national land proceeds paying for diffusing blacks outside whites’ republic. That nurturing atmosphere, precisely what Thomas Jefferson had groped towards with Jared Sparks, was exactly what proslavery perpetuators felt compelled to destroy. Loyalty politics was their best weapon of destruction. The disloyalty club turned an ultra-nationalistic Whig into a raving questioner of other people’s loyalty. Does success prove that the loyalty club need not have been swung?


After Johnson pressed his gag rule, Southern Democrats could not escape the Marylander’s unforgiving test. To vote down Johnson’s “mere” words and reaffirm Van Buren’s dodging vocabulary was to proclaim that the Democratic Party’s proslavery solutions were indeed shot through with Cuffee-like phoniness. Southern Democrats, unwilling to suffer this setback in a presidential election year, felt compelled to go one better than Johnson in Congress. Southern Democrats thus not only swung behind Johnson’s language but demanded that Northern Democrats go for the total gag. And could that supposedly ultra-loyal Maryland Whig wrench a single Northern Whig vote for southern orthodoxy?

Johnson, to his discomfort, could not. Meanwhile, Southern Democrats, to their displeasure, barely bludgeoned enough Northern Democrats behind the ultra-southern gag rule. Northern Democrats, already hounded by John Quincy Adams for half-yielding to the Slavepower, faced dismal alternatives. They could consolidate southern party prospects by caving in to the extremist gag resolution. Northern constituents would then consider them all the more slaves of the Slavepower and enemies of free republican discussion. Or they could please Yankee voters by rejecting total gags. Southern allies would then see them as all the more phony friends of slavery.

The natural result was that Northern Democrats split on the Johnson Gag. The House voted not to receive antislavery petitions, 114–108.26 That compared to a vote of 126–78 for the December 1838 receive-but-table gag. The difference was that where 56 Northern Democrats had supported and 14 opposed the previous compromise gag, only 26 favored and 36 opposed the uncompromising Johnson Resolution.27

The farthest North registered the largest revolt against escalated Slavepower pressure. Upper North Democrats voted 22–13 against the Johnson Gag. Lower North Democrats voted against too, but only 14–13. With a 50–50 split of all Northern Democrats, the minority South could comfortably control a congressional majority. With the 50–50 split now restricted to the North closest to the South, John Quincy Adams barely lost to William Cost Johnson.

Adams would have won except for his parallel hate, the three-fifths clause. In a House apportioned on the one-white-man, one-vote basis, Southerners would not have had the 19 fewer representatives received for black noncitizens in 1840. The Slavepower needed most of those 19 boosts in power to pass the latest gag rule by six votes.

In this supreme example of republicanism, southern-style, gutting republicanism, northern-style, the loser was not so much John Quincy Adams as his great foe, Jacksonian “Democracy.” Jacksonian passage of William Cost Johnson’s air-tight gag rule mocked even the not-so-democratic Jacksonian formula of pure democracy for whites, no democracy for “inferior” races. The Jacksonian Party’s latest appeasement of the Slavepower left the movement undemocratic on both sides of the color line.

William Cost Johnson was the winner in this latest escalation of gagging white egalitarianism, if anyone could be called victorious who had lost so much. True, the Maryland Whig had strained the opposing party. He had also unconditionally gagged outside agitators. But in the name of proving that the National Democratic Party’s proslavery postures were compromised, he had shown that only the Democratic Party could enact uncompromising proslavery legislation. Worse, in the name of saving the Union, quieting discussion, propelling black removal forward, Johnson had strained the republic, provoked more violent discussion, and made calm reform impossible. Worst of all, by demonstrating that Northern Democrats were barely trustworthy and that Northern Whigs were utterly untrustworthy when slaveholders demanded protection, William Cost Johnson had played into the hands of South Carolina extremists, who had hoped uncompromising gag rules would destroy both compromising parties.


The Age of Jackson’s angriest loser now pressed towards his supreme victory. Again and again in the early 1840s, John Quincy Adams almost ungagged the gag. On three different occasions in mid-1841, the House voted to repeal the Johnson Resolutions. But each time, a revote reinstituted the gag.28

Southerners, feeling momentum shifting, needed to make Adams seem to be not a responsible crusader for white republicanism but a fanatical opponent of everything American. On January 24, 1842, they thought they had their man. Adams stunned Congress on that long-remembered day by presenting a petition to abolish the nation. The so-called Haverhill Petition, from 46 citizens of Haverhill, Massachusetts, decried loss of democratic right and asked Congress for “measures peaceably to dissolve the Union.” Adams moved that the petition be sent to committee, with instructions to explain why the prayer was misguided.29

States’ Rights Whigs, as usual, were first to jump all over Adams. Shortly after the Massachusetts congressman introduced his latest firebrand into the House, one Southerner urged that the petition physically be burned. Then Henry Wise of Virginia, the Oppositionist who had first taken on Henry L. Pinckney back in 1836, moved that John Quincy Adams be censored.30

Adams, in response, asked the clerk to read the Declaration of Independence. The essence of Americanism, the reading reiterated, was a people’s right to alter governments destructive of democratic right. The Haverhill Petition, urged Adams, must not become the first document of the Second American Revolution. If Congress could not rescue the right of petition, Northerners might have to depart the republic.

But it was “not yet time” for the North to secede. Adams would have the petition referred so that a committee could explain to Haverhill residents that the right of petition would be restored and republicanism redeemed. Nothing was censorable, concluded Adams, about presenting a legitimate prayer from sorely excited constituents in order to soothe their eminently American excitement.31

Henry Wise proceeded to light into Adams in a famous two-day speech. The Virginian called the Massachusetts congressman the greatest Union-breaker. Adams answered in an equally notorious long assault. We must not sacrifice free republican debate, declared the Massachusetts congressman, to make a despotic regime safe. If he withdrew the Haverhill remonstrance, “I would consider myself as having sacrificed the right of petition; as having sacrificed the right of habeas corpus; as having sacrificed the right of trial by jury”; as having sacrificed free mails, a free press, free speech; as having sacrificed “every principle of liberty … that might not be pleasing to members of the ‘Peculiar Institution.’”32

Northern congressmen rushed to rescue John Quincy Adams from the Slavepower. The motion to censor him was tabled in the middle of his trial. The old man celebrated by defying the gag with more petitions. He was almost mirthful when the House refused to receive them.

He could afford to smile. Northern Democrats could not much longer risk being called undemocratic towards whites so that petitions need not trouble despots over blacks. At the session after the Haverhill Controversy, the gag squeaked through, 106–102.33 The next session, the margin was sliced to one vote, 88–87.34

In December 1844, the House finally and forever repealed all gag rules, 10880.35 Northern Whigs cast their usual unanimous vote against the gag. Southerners continued to vote almost unanimously for the gag. This time, however, Northern Democrats voted 54–16 against Southern Democrats. In 1836, they had voted 53–14 for Pinckney’s diluted gag rule; in 1840, they had split 36–26 against Johnson’s undiluted gag rule. In 1844, Upper North Democrats polished off the last potential gag, 32–5; Lower North Democrats less overwhelmingly but still decisively voted it down, 22–11. When Slavepower demands could corral only one-third the Democrats in the most friendly half of the North, the time to cease pressing northern friends for gags had arrived.

By finally letting Northern Democrats off the hook on republicanism for whites, Southern Democrats implicitly declared a decade of battle futile. Other crusades, offering richer rewards, had become more pressing. Why squander Northern Democrats, who were needed to annex Texas, in a counterproductive struggle that only made John Quincy Adams more eloquent?

Slaveholders had at last learned the obvious lesson: gag rules deployed too little tyranny to silence antislavery Northerners and too much tyranny for anti-abolitionist Yankees to tolerate. Slaveholders had pushed for insufficient despotic sanctions because theirs was an insufficiently despotic mentality—at least when it came to white republicanism. Dictators immersed in the American egalitarian milieu could only stuff a bit of a handkerchief down John Quincy Adams’s damnable throat.

That was no way to silence the Yankee egalitarian roar. The gag rule was always vulnerable because the somewhat closed version of white men’s democracy in the South looked not open enough to the North. Northerners and Southerners, while both for white men’s republicanism, found in the Gag Rule Controversy that they were republicans with a distressing difference.


Distressed was the word for every American who recalled gag rule scenes and pondered whether such scenarios might be repeated. In the North, Yankee Whigs, having at last stopped Northern Democrats from appeasing the Slavepower on the gag, feared future cave-ins to Slavepower ultimatums. Northern Democrats, having risked so much to gag Northerners so little, bristled at memories of Southern Democrats demanding ever more politically risky gag rules.

Southern memories of the long congressional fight were equally bitter and full of forebodings. Southern Democrats, who had finally secured the most extreme slavery legislation, bristled at memories of Northern Democrats who had melted away from the victorious coalition. Southern Whigs, who had led fights for the extremist gag rules and for the harshest condemnations of Adams, winced at recollections of their endless necessity to prove that a patriotic slaveholder could be part of so anti-Slavepower a party. South Carolina extremists, who had helped put both compromising parties under siege, could see only the same slaveholding spoilsmen staying inside the same compromising coalitions.

With every political faction edgier than ever, almost a decade of compromises and appeasements had solved nothing. The Gag Rule Controversy had but sketched in battle lines and hardened contestants for the worse crisis looming over the expansion of America—and of slavery—in the Southwest.

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