The Gag Rule, II: Mr. Pinckney’s Controversial Compromise

John C. Calhoun’s fellow senators, not James Hammond’s fellow House members, first demonstrated how moderates could finesse extremists. On January 7, 1836, Calhoun, repeating Hammond’s House initiative three weeks earlier, moved that the Senate refuse to receive antislavery petitions. The prestigious senator, like the unknown congressman, emphasized that antislavery “maliciously” branded slaveholding congressmen as sinners. The Senate must gag insults to “any individual member.”1


In the House, young Hammond defended his “impromptu” motion with a zigzag of a speech ending on the brink of disunion. In the Senate, Calhoun defended Hammond’s impulsive initiative with remorseless logic on why Carolina’s extremism preserved constitutional unionism.

In representative government, Calhoun argued, representatives’ dispositions of constituents’ petitions properly took two forms. When Congress had constitutional jurisdiction over a prayed-for subject, solons must receive the petition and decide on the prayer. When representatives possessed no constitutional authority to fulfill a request, legislators must refuse to receive a prayer asking them to fracture the Constitution.

Calhoun called congressional seizure of slave property obviously unconstitutional. The Fifth Amendment affirmed that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” “Are not slaves property?” asked Calhoun. “Can Congress any more take away the property” than it can violate “life and liberty?”2

Calhoun here precociously defended a “substantive” rather than “procedural” interpretation of the “due process” clause’s protection of property. Most constitutional commentators thought the Fifth Amendment allowed Congress to seize property for the common good, assuming proper procedures were followed. Calhoun insisted that no procedure could justify confiscation. The Founding Fathers meant the “due process” clause to keep King Numbers’s hands off personal possessions. The federal government could not confiscate slaves or any other property, not even in places, such as national territories and the District, where Congress exclusively governed. With this “substantive due process” argument, Calhoun anticipated Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s provocative reasoning in the Dred Scott decision of 1857.

Calhoun sought to avoid future provocations. By establishing that Congress possessed no constitutional authority to abolish slavery anywhere, he would silence a congressional discussion he feared would inspire abolitionists white and black. The Carolinian at first emphasized black warriors. “A body of men in the northern states,” charged Calhoun, stood “ready to second any insurrectionary movement.” Congressional discussion could prove more insurrectionary than the fanatics’ recent use of southern post offices. Congressmen’s talk, Calhoun knew, occurred in a capital containing the weakest slave regime and contiguous to border states containing a small minority of slaves.3

Calhoun here again foresaw and would avert a theme destined dangerously to recur. Almost every time Southerners precipitated a national crisis, whether about Texas or fugitive slaves or Kansas, fears began at spots where slave regimes bordered on non-slave societies. Calhoun saw that no iron curtain separated North and South. By imposing silence in the District, Calhoun would plug the ears of nearby slaves.

Calhoun also wanted to plug white ears, North and South. Like Francis Pickens, he conceded that “the real number of abolitionists was small.” But “ardent addresses in favor of liberty, so constantly made at the North, must have a deep effect on the young and rising generation.” Abolitionists’ “bad effect” had lately swept slavery out of the British Empire. The chance of freedom’s dogma spreading within the free labor North “was not to be trifled with.”4

Calhoun also admitted that free discussion might convert southern slaveholders. When first presenting his gag motion, Calhoun dismissed that possibility. He claimed that abolitionists could produce “no … change of mind in the southern people.” Instead, the more slaveholders “were assailed on this point, the more closely would they cling to their institutions.”5

Calhoun was more candid in his major gag rule oration, delivered on March 9, 1836. Slaveholders, Calhoun worried, faced “a war of religious and political fanaticism, … waged not against our lives, but our character. The object is to humble and debase us in our own estimation, and that of the world.” Congressional “assaults on our character and institutions” would compel us “to engage in an endless … defence. Such a contest is beyond mortal endurance. We must, in the end, be humbled, degraded, broken down, and worn out.”6

Free debate must leave us debased in our own estimation. There spoke the man worried that his culture would doubt itself. Open discussion “must ultimately” leave us “degraded” in the “eyes of the world.” There spoke a statesman frightened that world-wide egalitarianism would turn majorities every where against slavery. A slaveholding elite must separate egalitarianism from republicanism, gag antislavery, bar anti-despotic doctrine from entering democratic debates.

As American freedom goes, Calhoun’s gag resolution was a serious transgression. But as classic tyranny proceeds, Calhoun proposed thin repression. The Carolinian conceded constituents’ right to petition. He admitted that if Congress could constitutionally emancipate Washington slaves, the Senate would have to receive petitions. His twin concessions invited endless debates over his debatable “substantive” due process constitutional interpretation. Constitutional discussions had and would range beyond the Constitution. Dictatorial regimes usually can impose more silence than this. Even at one of his more anti-republican moments, the American slaveholder was too republican to wage all-out war against republican procedure.

Northerners still considered Calhoun’s gag resolution almost as intolerable as Carolina’s earlier demand that abolitionists be imprisoned. If representatives could not discuss their constituents’ wishes, representative government was arguably destroyed. The Calhoun-Hammond extreme position, to most Northerners, meant that the slavocracy’s limits on white republican debate at home were being exported beyond the South. White constituents seeing themselves as enslaved, northern senators knew, would fight the Slavepower’s repressions. Carolinians were indeed provoking a crisis.


The two northern establishment parties differed in their usual way on how to halt the Hammond-Pickens-Calhoun provocation. Northern anti-Jacksonians sought to save egalitarian republicanism by stonewalling against gag resolutions. Northerner Jacksonians endeavored to salvage Union and party by bending before southern pressure. States’ rights Southerners were more powerful in the Jackson than in the Opposition Party, and the Jacksonian power base was located more to the south. Southern Democrats already faced charges that Oppositionists’ 1836 presidential candidate in Middle and Deep Souths, the Tennessean Hugh White, would be truer to slavery than the Yankee Van Buren. Southern Democrats who now secured nothing from Martin Van Buren, after James Hammond had challenged their soundness, would be the more vulnerable to Oppositionist onslaughts. Northern Democrats accordingly had to venture far enough south to neutralize pressure on Southern Democrats, while remaining far enough north to appease northern voters.

The first Yankee to solve the gag rule problem would be the last to ride appeasement of the South to the highest national office. James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, in a youthful maneuver which prefigured his mature presidency, urged the Senate to go almost all the way with Calhoun. Buchanan’s Pennsylvania was an in-between state, north of the Border South, south of more abolitionist-influenced New England. A northern state bordering on the South, like southern states bordering on the North, characteristically found neutrality on slavery wisest for those in the middle. Pennsylvania’s senator realized that the new slavery issue menaced Union and that Northern Democrats must appease the party’s dominant southern establishment.

James Buchanan wished the Democratic Party to appease the South a tad less than southern extremists desired. No self-respecting Northerner could altogether surrender to southern fanaticism. Nor could any self-respecting republic altogether destroy democratic procedures. Southern Democrats had to give in a smidgeon. Then Northern Democrats could almost surrender. The resulting southern-leaning compromise would isolate fanatics North and South, save the Democratic Party and democratic Union, and enhance the position of reasonable men such as James Buchanan.

Buchanan’s reasonable idea was to receive, then instantly reject, antislavery petitions. The Pennsylvanian called immediate denial of constituents’ prayer “the strongest motion he could make, consistent with the right of petition.” The old way, Buchanan pointed out, was to table petitions or to bury them in committee. But tabling a constituent’s request allowed a later trip off the table. Dispatching the petition to committee implied its possible later reappearance on the floor. The Senate should instead respond to antislavery with an unmistakable NO, not now, not ever. A received petition could not be more totally rejected.

But republicanism, emphasized Buchanan, required that petitions be received. “The people of the North are justly jealous of their rights and liberties. Among these, they hold the right of petition to be one of the most sacred.” If the “right of petition and the cause of the abolitionists must rise or fall together,” Buchanan feared “fatal” consequences.

Buchanan scoffed at critics who called his instant rejection and Calhoun’s never receiving indistinguishable tyrannies. “What, sir, no difference between refusing to receive a request at all, and actually receiving it and considering it respectfully, and afterwards deciding, without delay” to reject it! No difference between politely rejecting a salesman’s pitch and kicking him away from the door before he could speak? Well, he saw the difference. Northern Democrats could, in all conscience, instantly reject abolitionists’ prayers, so long as even “fanatics” could dispatch prayers inside democracy’s doors.7

Calhoun agreed that he and Buchanan proposed critically different gag rules. By voting to receive and instantly reject a petition, argued the Carolinian, “the Senate would claim jurisdiction of the question.” Abolitionists whose prayers were received, then not granted, were invited to petition some more, discuss some more, agitate some more, in the belief that a changed public opinion would someday grant more than a respectful reception.

Buchanan’s impact on the South was worse, declared Calhoun. Southerners would be taught to accept less than pure southernism in order to save impure parties. Those priorities would yield little compromises every time abolitionists made slight gains.

Instead of allowing abolitionists slightly inside, Calhoun would confront “the enemy on the frontier.” The question of “receiving” is “our important pass—it is our Thermopylae.” If the vulnerable South let the enemy within the gates, nothing would be “more hapless and degrading than our situation; to sit here year after year, session after session, hearing ourselves and our constituents vilified. … We must ultimately be not only degraded in our own estimation and that of the world, but be exhausted and worn out.”8

There it was again: abolitionists could influence Southerners to see slavery as degraded. There spoke a senator who knew that the most northern half of the South yearned to diffuse away its “evil.” Calhoun urged Southerners to repudiate doubt, to make an absolute commitment to perpetuating slavery before heretical ideas spread. Southern senators must reject Buchanan’s partial gag rule. A united South must insist on absolute silence. Then slavery could be saved and Union too. Or as William Preston, the other South Carolina senator, put it, an intransigent South, “the postulate demanded for a southern confederacy,” made secession unnecessary.9


The trouble with Calhoun’s strategy was inherent in Preston’s “postulate.” Southern divisions that made Thomas Cooper’s revolution impossible made Calhoun’s non-revolutionary remedy utopian. Almost all of Calhoun’s southern senatorial colleagues distrusted uncompromising Southerners and relished compromising national parties. Worse, Calhoun’s fear that abolitionist agitation might someday debase slaveholders in their own estimation had seemingly already happened. During the gag rule debates, Henry Clay, hero of the Border South, gave Calhoun an unneeded lesson on why antislavery agitation might infect vulnerable opinion South as well as North.

Instead of instantly rejecting received petitions, as Buchanan proposed, Henry Clay urged that petitioners be heard for longer than an instant. The Kentucky senator would send received petitions to committee, hoping to receive a report back “against granting the prayer.” Clay was against granting emancipation without removing blacks. Especially in black belts south of Kentucky, “emancipation must necessarily give the inferior race, in the course of time, a numerical” majority. “If he were a southern man,” declared Clay, “he would resist emancipation in every form.”

IF he were a southern man! What in the world, one can almost hear Calhoun storming, do you think a slaveholding senator is? Clay was in fact a slaveholder of the Border rather than the Deep South. Like most borderites, he coupled affirmation that present “necessity” now “justified” an “evil” with prayers that diffusions of blacks to Africa and to the Deep South might remove the necessity. He “expressed himself in favor of a gradual emancipation of the black race, if it could be done without … injurious consequences.” He had always believed “that every man, no matter what his color or condition, was entitled to freedom.” How different his southern utopia would be from James Hammond’s “domestic slavery, … the best organization of society that has ever existed on the face of the globe!”

Clay introduced amendments to Buchanan’s instant rejection motion. Clay would turn down antislavery prayers solely on grounds of expediency now, not unconstitutionality forever. Emancipation in the capital was inexpedient for the moment, ran Clay’s words, “because the people of the District of Columbia have not themselves petitioned for” emancipation, “because … Virginia and Maryland would be injuriously affected by such a measure, whilst the institution of slavery continues to subsist within their respective jurisdictions,” and because “alarm and apprehension in the States tolerating slavery” disturbed “harmony.”10

Clay’s words opened vistas of someday securing the momentarily forbidden. “Inexpediency” would become expedient if District of Columbia residents petitioned, and if neighboring states emancipated, and if other Southerners “tolerating” (!) slavery no longer were “alarmed.” Clay’s phrasing hinted that those eventualities might transpire. “Whilst” (!) slavery “continued to subsist “in Maryland and Virginia, the Kentuckian declared—there spoke Upper South slaveholders who expected the Chesapeake’s debate on slavery to someday yield, in the spirit of Virginia’s Archibald Bryce and Maryland’s Henry Brawner, slavery’s slow diffusion elsewhere, sometime in the future. Should the Border South prove that removal of blacks could work, then a Lower South only “tolerating” (!) bondage might calm down about the District.

Clay had previously proposed federal laws to achieve these objectives. His Distribution Bill of 1832 had suggested state use of surplus federal funds to colonize emancipated slaves. The man who thought that constitutional now urged the constitutionality of emancipating slaves in Washington. And it all came wrapped in a package marked rejecting abolitionists’ prayer!

Senate votes on March 9, 1836, showed again that Calhoun’s South and Clay’s were a world apart. The Senate voted against Calhoun’s motion not to receive antislavery, 36–10. Deep South senators voted Calhoun’s way, not to receive antislavery petitions, 8–2. The Border South voted Clay’s way, to receive emancipationist prayers, 8–0. The Middle South split, 2–2, with 2 abstainers.11

The Senate eased Calhoun’s disappointment by rejecting Clay’s more watery gag resolution. But the Deep South left Calhoun isolated by massing behind Buchanan’s almost-total gag motion, without resentment, almost with rejoicing. Even Carolina’s other senator, William C. Preston, hailed Buchanan’s reception and instant rejection formula as “the next strongest condemnation of abolitionists.”

On March 14, Buchanan’s gag without Clay’s loopholes passed, 34–6. All voting southern senators favored Buchanan’s motion. Calhoun abstained. Northern Democrats voted yes. Northern opponents of Jackson, led by Daniel Webster, voted no. Carolina extremists had found the perfect issue to galvanize the South. Their boon had then been stolen, along with a-sold-out South, by the Northern Democrats’ new would-be prince.12


A similar theft transpired in the House of Representatives. But this time a Carolina extremist, not a Pennsylvania politician, pilfered Carolina’s idea. And this time the gag rule issue became so locked into establishment controversies between Democrats and Oppositionists that anti-establishment extremists were even more isolated.

The House denouement began with Southern Democratic congressmen’s realization that they must respond somewhat positively to James Hammond’s initiative. Otherwise, Southern Oppositionists could convict them of softness on slavery during imminent congressional and presidential election campaigns. Political expediency aside, northern extremists’ emergence and southern extremists’ disunion worried moderate Southern Democrats. The National Democratic Party had to gag antislavery for the sake of slavery, Union, and party—and for the sake of Martin Van Buren’s hope of carrying the South.

That message poured in on a wary Little Magician back in New York. Southern allies demanded he prove himself safe to the South by supporting an acceptable gag rule. United States Representative George W. Owens of Savannah, Georgia, for example, urged Van Buren to “put to rest a most delicate and dangerous question.” Owens spotted “some coolness” on gagging abolitionists among “the Northern clans.” Van Buren must “use every exertion to bring the weak—the timid and the doubtful up to scratch.” Should the House hesitate, Owens would consider “the Union as having received its death wound.”13

The Little Magician saw that no magic would make Hammond’s disruption disappear. But Van Buren’s strategy to contain the damage was an illusionist’s masterpiece. Where James Buchanan would reject antislavery prayers without even committee consideration, Van Buren would secure a committee report against the prayer. By allowing petitions to sink deeper into the House’s deliberative processes, Van Buren would forfeit the almost unanimous praise Southerners had showered on the Pennsylvania senator. But as long as most Southern Democrats accepted a committee report against antislavery, their mutterings against committee involvement could be tolerated. Indeed, southern restiveness could show Northerners that Van Buren had hardly caved in to Calhoun. On the other hand, Buchanan’s almost total cave-in, without even committee consideration, would be a harder sell in the North.

The gag rule controversy here prefigured these two future Presidents’ different roles in subsequent slavery controversies. Van Buren, whose gag rule concessions were more limited and begrudging, would eventually run for President as an anti-Slavepower free-soiler in 1848. Buchanan, who almost went all the way South with his gag rule, would make appeasement of the South the hallmark of his administration in the Lecompton Controversy of 1858. Future Presidents, like most politicians in their generation, were destined to stay on the trail they chose when the Gag Rule Controversy first forced their choice.

Having chosen to impose on the North less of a gag rule than Buchanan desired, Van Buren needed to convince Southern Democrats to accept a more diluted rule than the Senate had passed. Here, the Little Magician truly pulled the rabbit out of the hat. The New Yorker secured a Nullifier to present and sponsor compromise proposals. Henry L. Pinckney, Charleston’s representative in the House, was editor of the Charleston Mercury, the Nullifiers’ showpiece of a newspaper. The youthful Pinckney was considered, like James Hammond and Francis Pickens, a rising young Carolina hotspur. Yet on February 4, 1836, the man hitherto known as fiery Nullifier asked for the House floor to introduce Union-saving retreat.14

Southern representatives used parliamentary tactics to deny the “traitor” the floor. Second thoughts did not deter the “recreant.” On February 8 Pinckney was back, demanding a hearing. The Charleston Mercury’s editor introduced resolutions declaring that petitions on slavery should “be referred to a select committee, with instructions to report that Congress” could not constitutionally interfere with slavery in the states and “ought not” interfere with the institution in Washington, D.C. Pinckney would chair the committee. The National Democratic Party would support his initial resolutions and affirm his final committee report. A Carolinian was in the mainstream’s saddle, and no extremist could tear him out.15

Why did Henry L. Pinckney compromise on Carolina extremism? Pinckney’s Charleston friend Robert Y. Hayne plausibly guessed that a recent religious conversion had made the man unsteady in opinion. Two weeks before the recreant claimed the House floor, Hayne warned Hammond to “keep Pinckney straight, and that will not be an easy matter (for between ourselves since he has become a saint he is strangely self willed and erratic).” Hammond further guessed that the erratic saint was “flattered with the idea of being a second Clay to save the Union.”16

The scribbler would hazard another guess: that Carolina’s latest erratic radical saw himself as a second generation of Pinckneys, sustaining the first generation’s record of statesmanship. Only Henry L. Pinckney among leading South Carolina politicans of his era bore the name of a great Carolina Founding Father. Yet this latest Pinckney, for all his respected editorial work with the Charleston Mercury, had been less powerful than Calhoun and Cooper and two dozen others. Now, at the moment a religious conversion freed Henry Pinckney to soar, Martin Van Buren invited him to break free of the second rank of Carolina politicians and to strengthen the Union his ancestors had fashioned.

Pinckney himself claimed that he broke with Calhoun because the latter’s political position no longer made sense. The novel notion of never receiving antislavery petitions, Pinckney charged, had “united … the whole North” against a divided South. That debacle insured disastrous defeat. The battle of abolition had to be fought at the North, between “fanatics” and “the great body of the people.” By “contending against the right of petition,” slaveholders would “change the whole aspect of the question,” drive our northern sympathizers “from the field,” and “increase abolition.” He preferred to “strengthen our friends.” He would secure the strongest gag rule possible in Congress and acceptable to the pro-southern northern conscience. And for that he was called traitor to the South!

His treason to South Carolina, Pinckney scoffed, came down to a verbal quibble. He favored gagging petitions after they were received. His former allies favored gagging petitions before reception. Here was “almost a distinction without a difference.” What “possible practical importance” existed in all those “mere abstractions” about what form of gag was true-blue southern stuff?17

Readers of these pages may cheer Pinckney’s question. Why did contemporaries, and why in heaven’s name should posterity, take these slight verbal disputes seriously? Why care whether abolition in Washington was inexpedient or unconstitutional, so long as Congress gagged the idea? Why fret whether congressmen refused to receive antislavery petitions, or instantly rejected them, or killed them in committee, so long as abolitionists were automatically silenced?

Because as Henry L. Pinckney knew very well, these “mere” words were loaded weapons in an immensely practical debate. Hammond, Pickens, and Calhoun had stumbled upon, then perfected, a linguistic system forcing Southerners to declare where they wereon the practical question: Did antislavery dangers demand an uncompromising response, and, if necessary, another reorganization of southern politics? “Nonreception” was the most uncompromising condemnation of antislavery, just as “unconstitutional” was the most extreme rejection of abolition in Washington, D.C. These uncompromising words announced that compromising party institutions and compromise sectional settlements, the very stuff of American Union, came second. Hammond’s words were an oath of allegiance to purify parties and Union before southern participation could be assured. Should purification fail, Hammond’s pledge compelled the South to abandon the political party system and, if necessary, the Union as well.

Hammond’s oath of allegiance turned enemies into lepers. The difference between barring lepers at the door and letting them in to state their case was vivid, physical, tangible, something men could see, taste, smell. The difference between calling lepers unconscionable, intolerable, in a word, unconstitutional, and calling them unpleasant, inappropriate, in a word, inexpedient, was easily felt—and with a shudder.

These “mere” words not only conjured up shuddering images but were wielded as slashing weapons. Extremists possessed only words to force party politicians away from compromising. Ultras could not shoot or gas or imprison softhearts. After the debacle of 1833, Carolinians could not nullify the southern masses either. In this slaveholders’ democracy, public opinion was king. Their royal highnesses, party politicians and deluded followers, could only be shamed into intransigence.

Assuming Hammond’s “mere” words could shame apologists away from compromising, American political institutions would fundamentally change. Northerners would have to accept the most extreme condemnation of abolitionism, if they meant to keep national political parties together. Southerners would demand the most extreme protection of slavery, if the Union was to survive. Abolitionists would receive the most total condemnation, if they bothered to keep on agitating. Words would compel institutional purification, either in Calhoun’s southern convention or in Cooper’s southern nation.

Pinckney’s words, on the other hand, were like a suit of armor, crafted to protect the political status quo. “Tabling” rather than “receiving” petitions because abolition was “inexpedient” rather than “unconstitutional” were code words declaring that abolition could be stopped without revolutionizing the two-party system. Pinckney’s vocabulary gave Southern Democrats a loyally southern way of compromising with Northern Democrats. Pinckney’s terminology declared that Little Magicians not to the manor born could be safe on slavery. Pinckney’s language sang of a world providentially free from doing or dying for James Hammond’s oath of allegiance.

Once Pinckney sprung them from Hammond’s linguistic trap, southern moderates could proceed as compromising American politicians. Southerners who apologized for slavery could also continue to pray, with Henry Clay, that slavery would diffuse from the border, that blacks could be dispatched to Africa, that Washington might be delivered some blessed day from the “evil.” With the loss of Hammond’s “mere” words, other southern wordsmiths, not shamed away from collaboration with outsiders, just might seek legislative removal of an institution called, in Henry Clay’s “mere” words, a “temporary curse.”


The gag rule tale would have to be finished without its first author. Henry L. Pinckney had blocked James Hammond’s terminology and Hammond, in a word, quit. Illness was Hammond’s excuse for resigning from Congress and fleeing to Europe three weeks after Pinckney’s “treachery.” Vicious intestinal pain, Hammond whimpered, paralyzed him. Doctors told Hammond that nerves caused his agony. Hammond nervously agreed.

He had political reason to be nervous. Southern Van Burenites had defused his initiative, just as Professor Cooper had predicted would happen. Cooper had counseled mass southern resignation from Congress, should some Henry L. Pinckney surface. Now Hammond was resigning. Still, with everything on schedule to follow conspiratorial orders from headquarters, Cooper’s closest thing to a point man in Washington ignored instructions. A decade and a half later Hammond would advocate the professor’s plan, after another South Carolina revolutionary gesture proved impotent. But in 1836, unlike 1851, Hammond did not seek southern exodus from Washington. He did not even write a long public letter, justifying resignation as a protest against southern compromising. One day, he just left. His quiet departure, like his noisy arrival, showed a conspiracy not commanding but despairing of seizing command.

With the political case for resignation not even made, maladies more personal clearly led to Hammond’s departure. Hammond himself called a debilitating inferiority complex the cause. “[I] tried,” without success, “to lull my own fears—no not my fears—my own opinions of myself,” Hammond wrote privately soon after leaving Washington.18

But why did this striver, having ascended so fast, doubt that he could continue to soar? Analysts who think mental illness is genetic will emphasize the Hammond clan’s sometimes emotional instability, before and after James Henry. Theorists who think compulsively pushy parents characteristically produce compulsively insecure achievers will speculate that Elisha Hammond’s enormous ambitions heaped crushing burdens on his son.

Whatever the source of Hammond’s neuroses, his gyrations personified the Carolina gentry’s unsteadiness. Just as Hammond’s pattern of charge, then retreat, was rooted in a desire for glory and a fear of being inglorious which made his stomach one raging ache whether he charged or retreated, so Carolina’s inconclusive outbursts were rooted in a desire for precipitating revolution and a fear of revolutionary precipitousness which made gentlemen nervous whether Carolina dared or delayed. South Carolina’s cultural hero would never be Thomas Cooper, remorseless revolutionary. James Hammond, resigning revolutionary, would be the obvious candidate to succeed John C. Calhoun, radical Union-saver. Carolina would call Hammond back from resignation, again and again, to strike and then to quit, until the state finally summoned the nerve to rush past James Hammond’s final nervousness about Thomas Cooper’s dream.


With Hammond away, treating his stomach, Southern Democrats faced a new tormentor. As soon as Henry L. Pinckney introduced Martin Van Buren’s diluted gag rule, Henry Wise of Virginia, a youthful House states’ righter and Oppositionist, called the compromiser a “traitor.” No southern patriot, declared Henry Wise, could settle for calling abolition in Washington “inexpedient” rather than “unconstitutional.” Nor would a truly southern warrior settle for merely denying the prayer of a received petition. The Virginia Oppositionist “hissed and spurned” Pinckney “as a deserter.” Loyalty politics had arrived inside the House.

The Speaker of the House, upset that Henry Wise attacked a colleague’s motives, ordered the Virginian to sit. Wise stood. The Speaker appealed to the House. Wise glared as he lowered his frame. He meant “to characterize the course of the gentleman as treason to the South,” the States’ Rights Oppositionist muttered. “God only knows his motives.”19

Whatever God knew, Southern Democrats realized that Wise’s disloyalty charge was more politically lethal than Hammond’s. This time, the accusation that Southern Democrats were Cuffees, compromisers who only pretended to secure safety for slavery, came not from Calhounites outside the system but from the other southern party within the national establishment. If Oppositionists could show that Southern Democrats’ compromised gag rule was soft on slavery, the Tennessee slaveholder, Hugh Lawson White, might crush the New York nonslaveholder, Van Buren, in an 1836 presidential contest over who was safest for slavery. By injecting loyalty politics inside the House, Southern Oppositionists escalated pressure on Southern Democrats, who thus had to intensify pressure on Northern Democrats.

Henry Wise stepped up the pressure on the National Democratic Party partly because gag rule politics endangered his States’ Rights Oppositionist faction. Uncompromising Oppositionists, when following Calhoun out of a compromising Democratic Party, had promised to make the Opposition Party uncompromisingly for states’ rights. Calhoun had declared the party of Clay, Adams, and Webster immune to a states’ rights takeover. Now, events seemed to be showing that the great abstractionist was the greater realist. True, Van Buren and the Democratic Party offered only a compromised gag rule. But Northern Oppositionists, led by Daniel Webster, denounced all gag rules. Who would now believe that the Oppositionist Party could best serve slavery? The embarrassing question forced States’ Rights Oppositionists to out-Calhoun Calhoun in exposing Democrats’ compromises.

But Henry Wise and his ilk were more dangerous than electioneering opportunists. They believed. They considered Martin Van Buren the phoniest protector of slavery. States’ Rights Oppositionists damned the Magican too often privately to dismiss their public rhetoric as demagoguery. Not even Van Buren’s “non-committal cunning,” Abel P. Upshur wrote a fellow Virginia Oppositionist at the time of Van Buren’s gag rule maneuvers, can prevent the Little Magician from being forced, by his own party, towards “consolidation” and eventually “emancipation.” Upshur believed that, “in five years,” Van Buren will free all “slaves in the South,” and “all the South will submit.” Van Buren had “bought up” Democratic leaders with patronage. Democratic leaders had gulled the people. The situation was “almost hopeless.” Only a violent Oppositionist effort to rip off masks and expose compromisers might save slavery from Democrats’ proslavery charades.20


Southern Oppositionist’s gag rule thrust made Southern Democrats squirm. But could Henry Wise’s shoving fail to abort his own newborn National Opposition Party? Northern Oppositionists shunned any gag on democratic debate, much less Wise’s total silencer. By failing to come out of an alliance with such uncompromising Yankees, States’ Rights Oppositionists could mock their claim to be uncompromising Southerners.

Timing provides one key to how Southern Oppositionists could emerge as the most intransigent slaveholders and yet remain in the same party with the most intransigent Northerners. Only in 1836 and 1838 would Southern Oppositionists/Whigs cast more pro-southern congressional votes than Democrats. Later, southern ultras within the Whig establishment would have to forget southern ultimatums or risk expulsion from their national alliance.

But in 1836 the Opposition alliance was not trying to be a unified national party. Each section was running its own presidential candidate on its own platform. The states’ righter as Oppositionist, in this temporary situation, served his party best by making the most trouble for Democrats in the Slavepower’s homeland.

Even in 1836, Southern Oppositionists could not have made uncompromising demands anathema to their Yankee wing if the gag rule had been the primary issue in Congress or on the hustings. The more important controversy in 1836, as for many years before, involved Andrew Jackson: whether he was a Caesar, whether he could legitimately handpick his successor, whether his mobocratic and demagogical style was preferable to Whiggish chaste republicanism. Oppositionist’s main business was opposing King Andrew and his designated Little Magician. Gag rules were a distressing but passing distraction.

Since gag rules did not long remain the focal point of American politics, even in 1836, why focus on origins of the controversy so long and so exclusively? Because this is a history of the road to disunion; and in the Gag Rule Controversy of 1835–6, the slavery issue momentarily showed its potential to wrench everything national out of shape. The moment passed. But the momentary scare prefigured all reasons why slavery contentions were so dangerous.

Nowhere was this more true than with a national anti-Jackson party. Henry Wise, seeking uncompromising gag rules, and Daniel Webster, opposing all gags, could unite politically on nonslavery issues. But if slavery ever became the primary issue and if their party needed to present a united front, Southern Whigs would face an unrelenting double bind. They could ignore or oppose Democrats’ campaigns to bolster slavery. Then they would strengthen alliances with anti-Slavepower Yankees at the expense of appearing to be slaveholding wimps, especially in Lower and Middle South presidential elections. Or they could deploy their gag rule gambit of out-Slavepowering the Democracy. Then they would strengthen their southern position at the risk of ruining their national alliance with the North’s most anti-Slavepower establishment politicians.

In the perspective of this impossible future, the slavery affair of 1836, for Opposition/Whiggery’s more states’ rights partisans, bears the look of fleeting mercy. With Henry Wise’s gag rule attack, they could put southern heat on the Democracy, without applying any flame to a still barely-national Opposition Party.


In the face of Henry Wise’s war on the Van Buren-sanctioned evasive gag rule wording, Henry Pinckney felt driven to seek more uncompromising terminology. A worried Pinckney sought out Wise. The Virginia Oppositionist convinced the Carolina ex-Nullifier that calling abolition only “inexpedient” in Washington, D.C., was unsound. Pinckney agreed to go for the true-blue word “unconstitutional.” Pinckney promised Wise, and repeated the promise to South Carolina constituents, that his committee would include that loyal southern phrase in its report to the House.21

With Pinckney’s promise, southern loyalty tactics had again proved their power to change national slavery politics. Pressure from outsiders, Hammond and South Carolinians, had initially pressed Southern Democrats to press Northern Democrats for some gag rule. Now pressure from insiders, Wise and Southern Oppositionists, was pressing Southern Democrats to press northern allies for further concessions.

Northern Democrats, again prefiguring the next 25 years of slavery politics, could be pressed only so far. Van Buren had publicly called abolition in D.C. only inexpedient. He could not go for unconstitutionality under pressure now, lest he seem utterly the Slavepower’s slave. Pinckney’s promise to Wise accordingly became the first casualty of the strain Southern Oppositionists placed on National Democrats.

In May 1836, Pinckney’s Select Comiittee recommended to the House that antislavery petitons be tabled “without being printed or referred.” Automatic tabling was proper because “Congress possessed no constitutional authority to interfere in any way with with … slavery in any … States.” Congress also “ought not” interfere “with slavery in the District of Columbia.”

Ought not! That code term had scarcely passed Pinckney’s lips before Henry Wise screamed he had been betrayed. Pinckney had given Wise an “express pledge” that the committee’s resolutions would declare abolition in the capital unconstitutional. The South Carolina traitor, cursed the Virginia Oppositionist, now massed behind “a defense of Southern interest” without “an expression of Southern feeling.”22

Wise swiftly received further education in compromised southern feeling. Benjamin C. Howard of Maryland, a Democrat, made explicit that border dream of a slaveless future which Henry Clay had left implicit in the Senate. Pinckney was right, said the Marylander, to call District emancipation presently inexpedient. But the constitutional door must be open for future action.

For now Benjamin C. Howard wished Pinckney’s gag rule to be imposed on abolitionists. A slaveholder himself, “he left his children surrounded by slaves.” His Maryland neighborhood feared that “in the siege which the fanatics of the North were carrying on against the District, some of the bombs” might “burst on the way.”

But this Maryland slaveholder was hardly the sort of committed soldier an Unconditional Perpetualist wanted manning bomb shelters. Benjamin Howard bragged to Congress that Maryland had appropriated $200,000 to colonize emancipated slaves. As presiding officer of the Maryland Colonization Society, he could proudly report that this safe form of removal was working so well that “emancipation” was running “ahead” of colonization funds. “An increase of pecuniary means” would “eventuate in the conversion of that State into a nonslaveholding State.” This salutary process showed that “humanity as well as policy required” that uplifting Africans “be left to those who best understood their condition.”

Slavery in the capital must last as long as slavery in Maryland and Virginia persisted, continued Benjamin Howard. But Congress must retain constitutional power to match the capital’s future institutions to its neighbors’. “Suppose,” concluded the Marylander, his state would be emancipated “in any given number of years, and the same thing to occur in Virginia.” Wise’s principles would then consign “the people of the District to a remediless and hopeless condition.” Congress must someday extend to the capital the same emancipating laws which hopefully will have “operated upon Maryland and Virginia.”23

That defense of the Pinckney Resolutions was embarrassing to Pinckney. Pinckney’s more agreeable Southern Democratic defender was Representative Jesse A. Bynum of North Carolina. “The senators from Kentucky, as well as from Maryland,” warned Bynum, “had dissented from the course which other Southern gentlemen wished to pursue.” With the South “divided against itself,” slaveholders were “highly impolitic” to insist on ultra measures. Southern Democrats preferred to win everything winnable. Uncompromising Southern Oppositionists evidently preferred total loss.

North Carolina’s Bynum called the compromising Pinckney no traitor. Nor were Northern Democrats disloyal allies. They supported a gag rule. Northern Oppositionists opposed all gags. In fact, “four-fifths to five-sixths of the abolition petitions” came from Northern Oppositionists. How could Southern Oppositionists ally with such southern enemies?24

John Robertson of Virginia answered for States’ Rights Oppositionists. The Pinckney Resolutions, argued Robertson, were made in Albany and decimated southern principle. True southern principle was that Congress could never touch slavery, anywhere. True southern principle was that the subject must never enter these doors, anytime. The Pinckney Resolutions rested southern safety on the shifting ground of political expediency. Even “if I stood alone,” climaxed Robertson, “never but with life would I yield up … our rights.”25

Southern Democrats felt Robertson’s uncompromising force. Again, Southern Democrats pleaded with Northern Democrats for a more uncompromising gag rule. Again, Van Burenites said no. The Pinckney Gag Rule somewhat protected Southern Democrats against the Wises and Robertsons. Now Northern Democrats had to protect themselves.

On May 26, 1836, the House voted 117–68 to adopt as a standing rule Pinckney’s resolution that antislavery petitions be received, then automatically tabled. The minority section won easily because most Northern Democrats voted with the South. Seventy-nine percent of voting Northern Democrats and 87.5% of voting Southerners said aye to Pinckney’s rule. Northern Oppositionists voted no, 43–1. A sprinkling of Southern Oppositionists and Carolina extremists abstained or cast a negative protest vote.26

Southern abstainers were right that the Democratic Party had hardly secured pure southern principle. But northern states’ righters had proved again, as they had in the Missouri Controversy and in the Compromise Tariff of 1833, that they alone would help southern minorities secure congressional majorities. The question remained whether Northern Democrats who had compromised with the Slavepower could long escape undamaged in the North—and whether Southern Democrats who had compromised with Van Buren could survive unscathed in the South.

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