Petitions in Eighteenth-Century Virginia
Petitioning played a vital role in the political life of eighteenth-century Virginia. Encouraged by their legislative representatives, citizens made widespread use of petitions to propose legislation or seek redress of grievances; in return, the delegates guaranteed consideration of every petition with serious attention and due procedure. Between 1700 and 1800 petitions were responsible for generating more legislation than any other single source. They served as a direct register of popular opinion on matters of both private and public significance.
The practice of citizens sending petitions to their government had roots deep in the medieval period of English history and was frequently used by Englishmen for several centuries before American colonization. The practice was transplanted to Virginia during the first year of settlement at Jamestown, and by 1700 petitioning had assumed an important role in the political process. The right to petition was beneficial to the new colony of Virginia in two ways. First, it provided a structured mechanism through which problems arising in colonial administration could be brought to the attention of Parliament or the king. Secondly, it served to bring some order to the jumble of grievances submitted by the colonists themselves to the colonial government. Until the early eighteenth century, petitions from the colonial administration to the king or Parliament were usually concerned with the internal needs of the colony. Requests concerning charter changes and defense requirements, court jurisdiction, or land disputes were typical of petitions made by the colony during its first hundred years.
So useful were petitions to the internal affairs of the colony that the House of Burgesses made it an invariable rule never to consider private matters unless they were properly introduced in the form of a petition. By such means, all sorts and degrees of requests were delivered to the House, from complaints against taxes to a petition for a reward for discovering a method by which warts could be removed. Furthermore, England's Bill of Rights of 1689 included the declaration "that it is the right of subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal," thereby providing protection for petitioners against retaliation for the presentation of grievances.
Thus, petitions after 1689 concerned themselves more and more with questions of public policy. As a result, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, petitions became a considerable influence on the course of political decisions and a substantial outlet through which the needs of the people could be made known.
After the colonies declared independence, their new political authorities continued most legal traditions inherited from England, including the right to petition. In Virginia, after the outbreak of hostilities, petitions were received by the convention that established the first Revolutionary government. In some cases these petitions were acted upon immediately. In others, however, the convention postponed consideration and instead referred certain memorials to the initial session of the new House of Delegates, which replaced the House of Burgesses as the lower body of the General Assembly in 1776. Thereafter, with the exception of a few private petitions to the governor, petitions were normally submitted to the House of Delegates.
Finally, in 1791, with the adoption of the first ten amendments to the federal Constitution, the right to petition was guaranteed to all American citizens. By the first article of the Bill of Rights, the people were assured of their right "peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
In Virginia, the right to petition was not restricted by any requirements involving class, sex, or even race. Members of all social classes exercised their right to petition and received responsive action from their government. Although they were denied the right to vote, women, free blacks, and occasionally even slaves employed petitions to participate in the political process and make their opinions known. One 1779 debate over the division of Drysdale Parish, for example, engendered several petitions both for and against the proposal, signed by more than a dozen women. Because all petitions were granted the same due process, they proved a remarkably effective form of popular activism.
Gradually, however, the influence of petitions declined, a result of the improvements in transportation and communications that began to be felt in the first half of the nineteenth century and the growth of sectionalism that diminished common causes. And although a few grievances (such as women's suffrage or Prohibition) have brought large numbers of petitions pouring into the U. S. Congress, petitions have been a relatively unimportant influence on the passage of legislation in the United States since the Civil War. Improvements in transportation and communications rendered petitions no less valuable, but rather less useful. They were replaced through the technological revolution whose successive innovations have included the railroads, telegraphy, the telephone, and most recently electronic mail. As indicators of the opinions, problems, and desires of Virginians of all social and economic classes from the Revolution to the Civil War, however, petitions stand virtually unchallenged.