Of the many important issues potentially bedeviling Whig unity, none was more menacing than slavery, as manifested during the gag rule debate. No Southerner in the House of Representatives equaled Wise's prominence in this struggle. But here, contrary to his unyielding efforts against Van Buren, Wise eventually acknowledged defeat amid circumstances suggesting that perhaps he believed himself undeserving of victory.
In the spring of 1836, after abolitionists had flooded Congress with petitions whose principal demand was emancipation in the District of Columbia, the Jacksonian leadership apparently persuaded Congressman Henry L. Pinckney of South Carolina to move establishment of a select committee to which all memorials would be referred. 1 The committee reported the first of several gag rules that operated until antislavery forces eliminated them in 1844. But because Pinckney's resolves permitted the tabling of petitions and failed to require their rejection, Wise branded him a "Judas Iscariot" and "a deserter from the principles of the South." 2 Perhaps mere residence in an area where Nat Turner was a living memory accounted for Wise's extremism, but neither of Virginia's senators and none of her other representatives in Congress--Whig or Jacksonian, from either slaveholding or yeomen-dominated regions--matched him in boldness or determination. Even admirers could only guess at Wise's intentions. Throughout the early stages of the debate, he remained a loner and consulted with no one. 3
Although Wise seemed technically in violation of the Constitution by advocating nonreception of petitions, he was not, as even most antislavery strategists admitted. The Constitution guarantees the right of petition, not the right to be heard. 4 There is, however, the inescapable language of that instrument, which extends Congress's jurisdiction over the District of Columbia to "all cases whatsoever." To counter the obvious conclusion that Congress possessed authority to abolish slavery there if it chose, Wise contended that as local legislature for the district it could not enact