Slavery, Partisanship, and Procedure in the U.S. House: The Gag Rule, 1836–1845


  • Scott R. Meinke ( is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Bucknell University, Department of Political Science, Lewisburg, PA 17837.


From the 24th through the 28th Congresses, the House of Representatives operated under versions of a “gag rule” that blocked petitions dealing with abolition and related matters. This article presents the gag rule as not only a historically important window into slavery deliberations in Congress but also a case study in majority party restrictions of minority rights—and in the boundaries that constituency politics can place on majority power. Through analysis of vote choices and voting changes over time, I demonstrate that the gag rule's partisan origins gave way as northern members voted against party and with specific constituency pressures as well as general sectional sentiment. The gag rule shows the power of electoral considerations and constituency in the early U.S. House, and it also illustrates the force that constituency can have over majority procedural maneuvering.