What links slavery, jobs and the Pentagon Papers? Hint: It’s more interesting than the phone book

Let’s just say the Congressional Record makes for better reading than you think. Sure it transcribes a lot of hot air. But included amidst the tedium of congressional debate is a dramatic record of political courage and acts of infamy. Consider the following stories.

Forty years ago this week, Senator Mike Gravel (R-Alaska) began to read excerpts from the Pentagon Papers before a Senate subcommittee. Although Congress had received copies of the 47-volume Pentagon Papers the day before, the White House had forbidden discussion of the still confidential material.  But Gravel nonetheless read aloud for over three hours until, mentally and physically exhausted, he collapsed in tears.

Rep. Joseph Byrns holding a copy of the Congressional Record, 1939

This 1939 photograph shows a representative holding "a copy of the Congressman's 'bible'," with the United States Seal newly added to its front page. Credit: Library of Congress.

As with all official Congressional business, the excerpts Gravel read were recorded in the Congressional Record and, as with everything reported in the Congressional Record, the excerpts—and the 4,100 additional pages Gravel submitted as an exhibit—entered the public domain.

Gravel had chosen his forum carefully: by reading the Papers in front of a subcommittee, his act was protected by Art. I, Sec. 6,  of the Constitution, which prevents a member of Congress from being sued for remarks made as part of the legislative process (although it took the Supreme Court case Gravel v. United States to really clarify the details).

The day after Gravel’s reading, the New York Times reported that other senators “expressed dismay, shock, and chagrin,” although these reactions appeared to be sparked as much by Gravel’s tears as his use of the Congressional Record to release the secret study. For the Congressional Record has long served as a megaphone for political causes as well as a transcript of legislative debates.

Slavery and the gag rule

This use of the Congressional Record was perhaps most powerfully demonstrated in the 1830s when Congressional supporters of slavery moved to block one very specific type of document from being entered into the Congressional Record. Abolitionists had started bombarding Congress with thousands of antislavery petitions in 1834, which under the usual course of business would be read on the floor. But the bitter divisions in Congress over slavery were only antagonized by the flood of petitions. In 1836 the House passed a “gag rule” that blocked reading aloud or printing these petitions. Unread, unprinted, the petitions remained outside of the nation’s collective consciousness.  Various versions of the gag rule remained in effect until 1844.

Gravel nonetheless read aloud for over three hours until, mentally and physically exhausted, he collapsed in tears.

By bombarding Congress with petitions, abolitionists hoped to demonstrate the scale of support for their position, not only in numbers of signatures but also in the sheer overwhelming physicality of the petitions themselves.  A similar tactic has been used since January of this year by Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.), who has been calling on unemployed Americans to send him their resumes.  By submitting these resumes to the Congressional Record, Jackson’s intention is to make visible, immediate, and personal statistics about joblessness that are difficult to visualize and easy to distance oneself from. Jackson’s first submission (watch the video) was four towering stacks of paper, resumes of 9,000 unemployed people.

Commenting on his action at the time, Gravel said “when I came into possession of these papers, I looked around and nobody in government had done anything.  The only thing being done in government was an effort to stifle and hide this stuff.  And it just dawned on me that somebody, if we were going to have any faith at all in our institutions, somebody from government’s got to have the same resolve … as Ellsberg did.”  And so while Ellsberg went to the press, Gravel went to the people, through the peculiar, public medium of the Congressional Record.

Want to learn more? Archival footage of Gravel reading the Pentagon Papers is here; archival footage of Gravel discussing his decision is here, starting at 1:24.  Both audio and video cut in and out in this unedited footage.

Erin McLeary is an exhibit developer at the National Constitution Center, where she is working on an exhibition about the Civil War.