Gentle Readers, Kansas must wait a day. This past Tuesday night, as part of protesting against the appointment of Jeff Sessions to the post of Attorney General of the United States, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read into the record a letter that Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in opposition to his nomination for the federal bench back in the 1980s. It details how Sessions, as United State Attorney, used his power to go after black Alabamans trying to vote. King operated under the theory that a white supremacist ought not have a judge’s lifetime tenure to use fighting against black Americans who dared think they could vote. The protest worked then and Sessions did not get black robes to wear over his white set. Such things happened in 1986; they do not in 2017.
Instead, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Majority Leader, rose up and accused Warren of violating the Senate’s rules. He moved for her censure on the grounds that she had insulted a fellow Senator, which the Republicans then agreed to. As a result, Warren had to stop reading the letter and remain silent for the remainder of the debate on Sessions’ nomination. Now Jeff Sessions, who had the votes regardless, heads up the executive department charged with stopping people like Jeff Sessions.
I didn’t come here to write about Sessions; I’ve done that. Silencing elected representatives in the course of their deliberations has a history in the United States. We can find the most obvious precedent for Warren’s case in the Gag Rule of 1836-44. Practice going all the way back to the First Congress dictated that antislavery citizens could petition Congress, but any petition they sent would receive no action other than tabling or referral to a committee to die in obscurity. After coming to Washington and voting to do just the same as always with two antislavery petitions, South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond rose in the House of Representatives to condemn the petitions as an insult to the South which demanded a firmer response than effective silence. Instead, the House ought to not receive the petitions at all.
The drama that ensued rarely left the confines of the United States Congress, but that made it no less significant. Here, as in previous clashes, slavery rose up as an issue that could reconfigure national politics. No white man in the South could afford to appear less proslavery than anyone else and expect to prosper in politics. That same quest to always prove one’s soundness on slavery required concessions from a North which would understand each one as demanding that they yield not far away, but in their own homes, to slavery’s despotism.
John C. Calhoun, always ready to involve himself in anything proslavery, took up the same charge in the Senate. There he argued, as quoted in William Freehling’s Road to Disunion, Volume One, that the petitions represented
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.”
According to the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Warren’s reading of Scott King’s letter imputed
to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.
Calhoun maintained, as Freehling puts it, that
Free debate must leave us debased in our own estimations.
The Senator from South Carolina averred that the Senate must receive petitions, but only when they prayed for action that the body had a constitutional power to undertake. Since the Congress had no power to touch on slavery whatsoever, it must reject all antislavery petitions. To do otherwise would trespass against the property rights of the white South.
In all this, both Calhoun and Hammond insisted that the South’s censorship of the mail must now extend to the halls of Congress itself. The tolerance that the white North possessed for dirty hands and debased republicanism far away did not extend so near as all that. But outrage also went only so far. The House and Senate both passed gag rules that gave the Hammonds and Calhouns of those bodies nearly everything they wanted. James Buchanan, the man infamous for letting the Union fall apart, then sat in the Senate with Calhoun. The chamber adopted his almost absolute capitulation: the Senate would receive the petitions -sorry, Calhoun- but then would reject them at once rather than merely leave them on the table, from which someone might take them up, or refer them to a committee which may then take action on them.
The gag would last almost a decade, during which time it gave John Quincy Adams his finest hour. Now occupying a seat in the House, he proceeded to both name the rule by demanding to know if his opponents would have him “gagged” and explore every clever option he could think of for breaking it, including presenting a petition from people alleging themselves slaves -the objections rose up at once- who he then said had decided they liked slavery. When not embarrassing his overeager foes that way, he would offer up petition after petition and ask if they fell under the rule or not. Each time occasioned a slavery debate, just the thing the gag meant to stop forever. Stricter rules failed to silence the former president, who would finally introduce the resolution to end the gag in 1844. By then, the Northern Democrats that had accepted the gag before joined in opposing it.
Mitch McConnell did gag Warren Tuesday night. That he did it to silence her criticism of a man contemptuous of the rights of black Americans speaks volumes. So does his use of a rule against insulting senators reveal a further disturbing connection between his work and the nineteenth century. I need not explain the salience of the twentieth century connections. Instead, I will close with the epitaph that the Majority Leader wrote on Warren’s speech and which, gendered pronoun aside, fits John Quincy Adams just as well:
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”