When Republicans in Congress dusted off Rule 19 to tell Elizabeth Warren to sit down and shut up, a few historians remarked that the rule had never actually been enforced before.
But that arcane rule did have a history. We have to go back over a hundred years to see just why there actually is a Rule 19. It turns out that, in 1902, a couple of Senators from South Carolina began calling each other names. Things escalated until they began a boxing match right there in the Senate. One, segregationist Benjamin Tillman, leaped over Senate desks and began pounding Senator John McLaurin.
They were a bit inexperienced in boxing rules, as it turned out. They missed each other few times, and other Senators were unexpectedly punched.
Those were the days, weren’t they?
So the Senate adopted Rule 19. No insults implying that other Senators were unfit to be Senators.
A quaint practice developed after that. Apparently, you could get away with insulting another Senator if you assured everyone you weren’t insulting him. And you could do that by telling the target that you held him “in high esteem.” If someone said he held you in high esteem, you knew you’d better hunker down.
Republican Everett Dirkson of Illinois once said he held a colleague “in minimal high esteem.” Classy.
When I heard some of the details of the Elizabeth Warren incident, I thought about an earlier precedent by an earlier President.
Until I began looking into it, about 5 years ago, I thought of John Quincy Adams pretty much as I had been taught to think about him in high school. He was Secretary of State for James Monroe. He was a pretty good Secretary of State. He had a famous father.
And he was real jerk.
John Adams, the father, was well thought of pretty much from the time he died. Before then, it was pretty much a mixed bag. Doris Kearns Goodwin once remarked that John Adams could never understand why he was not liked by more people.
After all, he was always right.
John Quincy Adams was elected President largely because of his record as Secretary of State, but even more on the strength of his father’s name. Even with that, he won in a very close four-candidate race.
Then, in office, he became a bit of a petulant twit. At least that is what I was taught as a kid.
He lost re-election, but became the only President ever to later become a member of Congress. And that was where history books stopped.
I think I know why.
An important resource for textbooks when I was a kid was research done half a century before. That research was not what you would call unbiased. It was heavily influenced by those decades after the Civil War. War weariness had set in. Radical Republicans were thought of as extremists who wanted to punish the former Confederacy by imposing harsh, unreasonable measures. Unmentioned was that those harsh measures mostly involved equality for former slaves.
In fact, a lot of effort seems to have been expended making making folks comfortable with reconciliation between North and South. Implicitly this meant Northern and Southern white folks. Why bring up more of the unpleasantness of war and the “peculiar institution” leading up to it than was already in the national consciousness?
Part of what was buried with the best-forgotten unpleasantness of slavery was the entertaining saga of President John Quincy Adams after he became plain old Congressman John Quincy Adams.
In the late 1830s Congressional Representatives from slaveholding regions began to get fed up with petitions favoring abolition. A lot of those came from an anti-slavery group in New York. The Constitution guaranteed the right of petition, but the irritation got to be too much.
Congress passed a rule forbidding consideration of petitions about slavery.
Then they banned any discussion about the petitions.
Then they banned any debate about slavery at all.
Former President John Quincy Adams was, by then, a member of the House. He began finding ways to force the issue. He presented a petition to allow petitions about slavery. During a debate about whether this would violate the gag rule, he went on at length about slavery.
Then he presented a petition from a group saying the spirit of the Declaration of Independence was against slavery. He was ruled out of order. When he presented another petition that simply asked Congress to respect the Declaration of Independence, that was ruled out of order.
He had actually provoked conservatives in Congress into banning the Declaration of Independence.
He asked for a ruling on whether a petition could be heard on whether to extend slavery, thus allowing for discussion against the petition. During the debate about the right to petition in favor of slavery, he spoke extensively about the topic.
Slaveholders were outraged. A motion was introduced to formally censure the former President. He had broken the rules of the House of Representatives by violating the gag order. Adams insisted that he had the right to defend himself against the charges. He used a lot of his time … you guessed it .. to discuss his feelings about slavery. After all, it pertained to the charges against him.
It finally occurred to conservatives that, if Adams was censured, it would make him very popular back in his congressional district in Massachusetts. He could resign, get re-elected, and come back stronger than ever. They were playing into his hands.
So they dropped the censure, or at least tried to. There was one member who rallied enough support in the house to keep the censure motion going. That member was John Quincy Adams himself. He insisted on a trial, during which he defended himself by talking at great length about slavery. Finally, censure failed in February 1842.
This sort of thing went on and on, year after year. Adams never seemed to wear down. Since the gag order said he could not present petitions from his constituents about slavery, he presented petitions from other Congressional Districts. Then petitions about the petitions. Each provoked protests from slaveholders, which produced debate, which allowed Adams to introduce more discussion about slavery. If he was not allowed to discuss slavery, he would discuss a discussion about slavery. Could more resolutions against the founding documents be far behind?
Eventually the House of Representatives got sick of being forced to come out against everything held sacred by Americans, including the Declaration of Independence, just to enforce a gag rule that was being violated anyway.
So the rule was abolished eight years after it was established.
Congress, the country, and the world lost John Quincy Adams two years after that. He died in February 1848.
175 years after the John Quincy Adams censure motion, almost to the day, Elizabeth Warren tried to read a letter by Coretta Scott King.
The widow of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was a civil rights advocate in her own right. In 1986, she wrote a letter to the US Senate telling Senators that a candidate nominated by President Ronald Reagan for federal judge should not be confirmed.
She laid out the case that, as US Attorney in Alabama, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions had used his position to block civil rights. He had tried to intimidate those trying to register African American citizens to vote.
Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.
Coretta Scott King, March 19, 1986
Mrs. King pointed to specific actions on specific dates, with the names of specific innocent people who had been hounded for actively supporting the right of black people to vote. The letter and the details within it were devastating to Mr. Sessions. His nomination in 1986 was voted down.
Now more than 30 years later, Republicans charged Senator Warren with breaking Senate Rule 19, which says that a Senator cannot:
directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.”
Strictly speaking, she did not say that Mr. Sessions was unworthy or unbecoming a Senator. He did, after all, meet the major requirement, that of of being elected by his constituents. She did impute to him conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming an Attorney General.
But, as Republican Leader Mitch McConnell put it:
She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.
She Persisted has turned into a political slogan. Clothing, posters, and internet memes have appeared with the label She Persisted.
A few history buffs have looked for parallels in the attack of Benjamin Tillman on a fellow Senator. I see another parallel in an earlier attempt to censor words and thoughts.
Congressman Adams, the member who had been President, provoked conservatives into the absurdity of banning the words of the Declaration of Independence.
Senator Warren provoked Republicans into the more modern absurdity of banning the words of Coretta Scott King.
Elizabeth Warren finds a kindred spirit, the original persister, in speaking truth in the face of power. I believe history will judge them both favorably.
History will also judge whether Mitch McConnell is more akin to Ben Tillman, the enraged segregationist who tried to pummel a fellow Senator into silence.
to get episodes automatically downloaded.