Beginning in 1836, Southern representation in the House of Representatives sought to reduce if not eliminate altogether the number of anti-slavery petitions which were received by Congress from American citizens each year. Frustrated (and frankly inconvenienced) by these petitions which they regarded as an attack upon the rights and privileges of the South as well as an impediment to the smooth conduct of House business, southern representatives were successful in passing a resolution which permanently tabled all such petitions relative to slavery. Petitions received were prohibited from being printed, considered, debated or discussed.
Renewed during each subsequent Congressional session, the resolution was given renewed force when it was adopted as Rule XXI in 1840 and made a permanent part of House procedure.
Several legislators, foremost among whom was former President and then Massachusetts Representative John Quincy Adams, were deeply disturbed by the resolution which they considered an abridgement of American civil liberties. Adams stated as much during the roll call vote on the original resolution on May 18, 1836. Adams and his supporters maintained that what they and their supporters would come to know as the “gag rule” effectively stifled political debate and arbitrarily denied American citizens their right of petition guaranteed under the First Amendment. “Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people,” Adams counseled.
The First Amendment protection afforded to the right of petition was firmly grounded in the American colonial experience when petitions to King George III for a redress of grievances by American colonists went ignored or the right of petition denied outright. The Declaration of Independence articulated the basis for this protection when it stated:
“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated petitions have been answered only be repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
Adams would spend eight years effort challenging the gag rule, increasingly undermining it through the same parliamentary procedure its supporters had used to implement it. Threatened with both censure by and expulsion from the House, Adams’ perseverance, integrity, persuasiveness, and stand for political freedom would ultimately win over the majority of his colleagues. "Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish", Adams once admitted. In December 1844, the House of Representatives rescinded the notorious gag rule and fully restored to the American people their right of petition.
Contemporaneous with the challenge which Adams mounted to the gag rule was the development of a new political party, the Whigs. Originally arising out of disaffection with Adams’ political nemesis, Andrew Jackson, and driven by an opposition to Jacksonian policies, the Whig party was a disparate group which ultimately found common ground on a number of issues. At the time, the Whigs, in contrast to the Democrats were the more liberal of the two parties, favoring a number of social and economic reforms, opposing (for the most part slavery), and challenging the gag rule.
Locally, the Whigs got off to a slow start, not surprisingly as Middleborough was a bastion of conservatism, known at the time as the “Gibraltar of Democracy” in Plymouth County. Local Democratic politics (and by extension all local politics) were dominated in the 1830s by local political leader and merchant Peter H. Peirce.
Throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s, however, Peirce’s influence along with that of the local Democratic Party waned for a number of reasons among which was the controversy stirred up by implementation of the gag rule. Democrats were caught between their loyalty to a party which by in large insisted upon the rule, and their political conscience which knew the rule to be unconstitutional combined with a New England heritage which had always promoted citizen access to government. Given this tension, they were consequently deeply divided.
Meanwhile, the Middleborough electorate, which had for several years been told that increasing control of the Federal government by southern interests would lead to an erosion of civil liberties and a suppression of democracy, could only regard the gag rule and see their worst fears confirmed. As a result, support began to shift towards the Whigs locally during the 1840s, accelerating with the defeat of the gag rule in 1844.
Local Whig political success was consolidated in the mid and late 1840s with a series of elections which saw the Whigs victorious. In 1847, Whig William H. Wood who was elected as a state senator also defeated Democrat Eliab Ward for the position of Middleborough Town Moderator, sending a signal that perhaps the Democratic dominance of town affairs was in jeopardy. The following year, in 1849, Middleborough in a Congressional election voted Whig for the first time in its history. The Whig success culminated with the election of Philander Washburn (ironically the nephew of Democratic war horse Peter Peirce) as a state senator in 1849 and 1850.
While the Whigs (or at least the northern branch of the party) would within a decade be subsumed within the emergent Republican Party, their initial success, though brief, was in part directly attributable to opposition to Congress’ infamous attempt to deny the right of petition.
“The right of petition … is essential to the very existence of government; it is the right of the people over the government; it is their right, and they may not be deprived of it.” – John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams, photograph by Philip Haas, 1843 (detail)