Silencing Elizabeth Warren: Gag rules have a long, dark history

Sen. Warren reacts to her Senate rebuke
Sen. Warren reacts to her Senate rebuke

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    Sen. Warren reacts to her Senate rebuke

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Sen. Warren reacts to her Senate rebuke 10:35

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  • Manisha Sinha: Sen. Elizabeth Warren seems to have inherited spirit of her predecessors
  • John Quincy Adams and Charles Sumner also fought against gag rules

Manisha Sinha is the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and the author of "The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition." Unless otherwise noted, facts here reflect this book and its research. The opinions expressed here are solely hers.

(CNN)Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren seems to have inherited the mantle and fighting spirit of her predecessors from Massachusetts.

Manisha Sinha
Warren was censured earlier this week by a straight party vote for violating an arcane Senate rule against impugning the character of a colleague. The rebuke came during confirmation hearings for Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions -- whose middle name evokes the Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, notorious for having fired the first shot of the Civil War -- as attorney general of the United States.
In 1836, Southern slaveholders and their Northern allies in the Senate also used a procedural motion to table abolitionist petitions without a hearing, a gag that lasted well into the 1850s. The House of Representatives also passed a gag rule for the automatic tabling of abolitionist petitions. It was strengthened into a standing rule that did not allow these petitions to even be received in 1840 -- and finally repealed in 1844.
    Back then, another Bay State representative, former President John Quincy Adams, led the battle against the gagging of abolitionist petitions in the House of Representatives. In the House, Adams used various tactics to foil the gag on the freedom to petition, at one point quickly reading an abolitionist petition before the gag rule could be imposed on him.
    In 1850, when Congress passed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, an abolitionist senator, also from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, began a one-man fight against it. It is also worth recalling that Sen. Sumner was beaten for allegedly impugning the character of Southern slaveholding colleagues in his speeches.
    Republican Senate leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, did manage to interrupt and silence Warren, who was attempting to read letters by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Coretta Scott King opposing the confirmation of Sessions as a federal judge in 1986. King wrote that Sessions had "used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens" as attorney general of Alabama. Sen. Kennedy called him a "disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position."
    In the 1980s, this record was enough for the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject Sessions' nomination, but this week, it was neither allowed as testimony against Sessions' record nor did it prevent his quick confirmation and swearing-in as attorney general of the United States.
    But none of us should ignore the nefarious history lurking beneath McConnell's power to silence Warren. If history is any guide, McConnell and the Republicans might find their zealous overreach backfiring. Not only was Warren's reading of King's letter outside the Senate chambers viewed by millions on Facebook Live, but the letter itself has also been reproduced and shared on social media countless times.
    Just as the abolitionists were able to draw attention to their cause and link it to the issues of civil liberties, freedom of speech, petition, and association, because of the congressional gag and attacks by anti-abolitionist mobs, Warren's silencing has become a rallying cry against an attack on our fundamental democratic principles and representative government. It has drawn more attention to her and the notorious letter than if Republican senators had simply allowed her to read those letters to a virtually empty Senate chamber and enter it into the congressional record.
    The manner in which McConnell gagged Warren also recalls the ideas and words of a bygone era in American history, when women lacked the right to vote and an overwhelming majority of African Americans were enslaved. Women tended to out-sign men by a 2-1 ratio on abolitionist petitions. According to the preeminent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, they were the best "foot soldiers" of the petition campaign. Congressman James Henry Hammond of South Carolina, writing in 1845, targeted women like Angelina and Sarah Grimke, complaining that Northern women abolitionists "unsex themselves and carry on this horrid warfare against Slaveholders."
    When McConnell declared of Elizabeth Warren that "she was warned" and yet "she persisted," he sounded like a throwback to a time when conservatives sought to silence abolitionist women like the Grimke sisters, and before them the black woman abolitionist Maria Stewart, who dared to speak out against slavery. McConnell's infelicitous choice of words and #LetLizSpeak have quickly became trending hashtags on Twitter.
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    Coming in the aftermath of a highly successful Women's March on Washington, congressional Republicans seem to be particularly tone deaf in this regard. Like slaveholders of yore, they are preventing the concerns of the disenfranchised, mainly African Americans, from receiving a full hearing in the Senate. As in the 19th century, when Adams and Sumner took up the slaves' cause in Congress, civil rights activists today have found a champion in Massachusetts' first female senator.