Elizabeth Warren and the Gag Rule #shepersisted

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

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.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

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.

James Henry Hammond

James Henry Hammond

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.”

Thomas Jefferson, James Henry Hammond, and Uncanny X-Men #237

Between early October and late November, 1988, Marvel Comics published Uncanny X-Men #235-238. These four issues contain the first appearance of the fictional island of Genosha, a place somewhere between Madagascar and the Seychelles. The Genoshans, almost invariably white, have built up a wealthy, technologically advanced society in an otherwise inhospitable place. They enjoy every luxury that superhero comics of the late 1980s could provide. Or rather I should say the free Genoshans enjoy those luxuries, courtesy the enslaved Genoshans whose bodies and lives they pillage.

Listening to Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men, which I heartily recommend to any fan of comics, brought to my notice the story’s proslavery rhetoric. It passed me by when I first read the issues and I thus understood Genosha exclusively in the light of later stories. Those painted it more directly as Apartheid-era South Africa. You can find Apartheid in the original story too, as well as other twentieth century horrors, but Jay and Miles rightly noted that this story overwhelmingly concerns slavery. Inspired, and with their kind encouragement, I read the comics again with an eye to a short post about the arguments.

My reread found four issues so dense with depictions of and allusions to American slavery that I filled four and a half pages of notes just marking out pages and panels. At first, I thought I might note such references in passing, but they come too numerous and in too many layers for such a casual treatment. Unpacking them would also distract from examining the proslavery arguments and make for a whole series of posts. I might write them in the future, but for today my original goal will suffice. Should you wish to read along, you can get digital copies of the issues on Comixology or through Marvel’s Netflix-for-comics program, Marvel Unlimited.

On the island of Genosha, they enslave mutants. In the strange and wonderful world of Marvel comics, mutants get their powers from their genes rather than through the bites of radioactive animals or via aliens handing over jewelry as decent people do. If your genome shows up in regular tests, the state seizes you and subjects you to a process that erases your mind and alters your body, literally to the point of replacing your skin, to meet the needs of non-mutant society. Most enslaved mutants work in Genosha’s iron mines and steel mills, generating high-quality material on the cheap to feed the world economy. The story also depicts mutants cleaning streets and tending gardens, but mainly they mine. Having them grow cotton would seem anachronistic in a story written in the 1980s, but it works out the same.

The architects and administrators of the system keep it a secret from the world and even their own families. Even the son of the man in charge of enslaving mutants has convinced himself that Genosha’s mutant slaves enjoy their station, right up until his affianced qualifies for enslavement. In explaining the system to her, Genosha’s Genegineer goes full nineteenth century:


Uncanny X-Men #237. Written by Chris Claremont. Pencils by Rick Leonardi. Inking by Terry Austin. Lettering by Tom Orezechowski. Colors by Glynis Oliver.

I know this isn’t your fault, that you view what’s happening as some horrible, unspeakable fate worse than death, but without such gifted people as yourself, how else do you think Genosha can maintain its standard or living…or even survive?

GjendependThe Genegineer here lays out a necessary evil case for slavery. Their whole civilization runs on the labor of the enslaved. They can’t do without it, even if it requires the sacrifice of loved ones. “Paradise on Earth” demands its price. Without the slaves, Genoshans “are nothing.”

The necessary evil argument can sound very sympathetic. Its advocates grant the injustice of slavery and the suffering of the enslaved. Take it from Thomas Jefferson:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us.  The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.  Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.  This quality is the germ of all education in him.  From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do.  If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present.  But generally it is not sufficient.  The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.  The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.  And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.

No one can question Jefferson’s especially intimate familiarity with slavery. He sounds a great deal like the Genegineer:


I am truly sorry, Jenny. I so looked forward to your becoming my daughter-in-law.

However sincere Jefferson’s or the Genegineer’s anguish over slavery, it only goes so far. Jefferson dreamed of a continent free of slaves, but his plans for emancipation always scheduled it well into the future. Someone else, not the Sage of Monticello, would have to manage the actual process. The time, conveniently, never seemed quite right. Like the Genegineer, Jefferson fretted over the consequences of abolition. In his old age, the author of the Declaration of Independence avowed

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. the cession of that kind of property, for it is so misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

Jefferson wanted slavery, and blacks, gone. But it wouldn’t do to go crazy for it. He would happily instead have others suffer some sacrifices in order to preserve himself in his luxuries. Just like the Genegineer:



how else do you think Genosha can maintain its standard or living…or even survive?

Slavery, whether on the fictional island of Genosha or the real state of Virginia remained necessary as well as evil. We might associate the platform of slavery in perpetuity with later writers of a more radical bent, but the Jefferson and others like him ultimately held to the same ends. They called slavery evil, often and at length, but it proved a curiously dear sort of evil from which they loathed to part. All their tender consciences and good intentions fell short in the face of its considerable rewards.

The Genegineer has some sympathy for his son’s beloved and so preaches the necessarily evil of slavery to her, but only to her and only to a point. Ultimately he goes further still, recasting slavery as a positive good in the frame of radicals in the later Antebellum. Slavery’s sacrifice of the enslaved came with a benefit. He declares Genosha “a paradise on earth,” and the government propaganda, via an “informatape” agrees:

Informatape UXM237

Over the years, Genosha has built an economy and society that is the envy of the world. There is no poverty here, no hardship, with unparalleled opportunities for education and employment ours is a free land where people are judged by deeds and character, not for the color of their skin.

Unless I’ve missed one, all the enslaved Genoshans we see have white skin. By choosing to enslave whites, they have consummated one of the more radical dreams of slavery’s defenders and followed their critique of free labor, which theorists imagined as exploitative and adversarial, to its natural conclusion. The human sacrifices, by the slaves, necessary to free Genosha from hardship and poverty, except for the slaves, likewise echo antebellum thought. Specifically, the framing of freedoms sacrificed to create freedom for others recalls James Henry Hammond’s mudsill theory:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that order class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purposes, and call them slaves.

By mudsill, Hammond meant the wood at the bottom of the door that keeps the mud out; the thing that people step on and might use to scrape clean their boots. Like Jefferson, Hammond had especially intimate acquaintance with slavery. Unlike Jefferson, he sold either his enslaved son or grandson.

Genoshans didn’t find a docile race inured to the climate any more than American enslavers did. They created one through the horrors of comic book science, but only the genre conventions separate them from their American counterparts. Where Genoshans could use fantasy technology to render their slaves compliant, Southern whites understood that an educated slave would soon seek freedom. Thus they undertook to suppress slave education even in such otherwise universal and urgent matters as reading the Bible. Thus, they hoped, they would keep slaves to their “natural” role and free from infection with dreams of liberty. When that inevitably failed, they resorted to violence.

James Henry Hammond

James Henry Hammond

Hammond continued, insisting that the white South cared much better for its slaves than any Yankee could hope to receive or buy with wages:

The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. […] Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves.

Per Hammond, the slaves had it so good that they ought to thank their enslavers. The Genoshan propaganda promised Hammond’s vision of the South. The Genegineer promised his victim that she would be just as happy, even if she came on the wrong end of the system:


You needn’t worry, though. You’ll be cared for–well-fed, well-housed–most of the world’s population would probably kill for such a life.

If Jennifer Ransome, the Genegineer’s victim, didn’t see it that way then it didn’t matter. Though ordinary Genoshans vastly outnumbered their slaves, the opposite of the circumstance that southerners like Hammond often founds themselves in, they understood their situation much the same. Where four million slaves might once rise up in the antebellum South, and the threat of that rising justified endless repressions, “A few hundred super-powered mutants” posed an existential threat to their more numerous enslavers. Thus the Genoshans, like Southern whites, concluded that


Their power is sufficient to destroy us. That’s why we have to impose such strict controls. Not slavery, child, self-defense.

They had the wolf by the ears. Not content with that, like antebellum Southern whites, the Genoshans insisted that they did the wolf a favor to hold it there. They didn’t even demand thanks, just a small bit of backbreaking labor and large helping of dehumanization, degregation, and a dash of medical torture. What else could they do? Recognize the villain of the story when they looked in the mirror?

I could go on. The comics provide something close to a guided tour of proslavery argument, if with numerous departures for genre conventions and the convenience of the story. One shouldn’t get one’s historical education from a superhero comic, but these four issues offer up a vision of slavery deeply informed by the history. They go well beyond the conventional images and famous names, demonstrating a thoroughgoing understanding of slavery itself, its function as a social control, economic system, and the defenses marshaled in its favor in the nineteenth century United States.