“Let’s start a petition!” “Will you sign this petition?” “The petition’s gone viral.” Petitions certainly are common in our contemporary world. They provide a trusted outlet to express opinions as individuals and as part of a group, but what are they, really? Who starts them? Who signs them? Does anyone read them? Teaching Legal Docs will unpack petitions—what they are, why we use them, how they work, and their legal requirements.
A Long Tradition of Asserting Rights
A petition is a request to do something, typically to a government agency or public official. The request is made on behalf of a group, with individuals of the group recording their assent in some way, such as signing their name to the request. The concept and practice go far back into human history, with records of ancient Egyptian workers petitioning for improved working conditions.
From the 18th century beginnings of the United States, it was regarded as a basic practice—the act of adding your name, with others, to an official appeal asserted, not only identity, but also rights. Petitioning was open to everyone, including people not eligible to vote, so it became an important means for expressing opinions, persuading legislators, and, ultimately, influencing the political landscape of the new nation. In fact, scholars have determined that petitioning led to more legislative action in early America than any other source. Typically, a state legislature would receive a petition from constituents, refer it to committee, then act on the committee’s recommendations, which could include enacting policy.
Petitioning was so common, and the right to do so was so cherished in eighteenth century America, that the framers included a right to petition among those rights protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
With all of this in the background, law professor Gregory Mark has explained, “The history of the right to petition is at once a social, political, and intellectual story … of a constitutional and legal institution. Understood properly, it tells us about popular participation in politics, especially by disenfranchised groups,” including women, African-Americans, Native Americans, and others. Historical records show that more enfranchised groups—men—submitted petitions than disenfranchised groups, but nonetheless, absent the opportunity to vote, petitioning was a way to engage elected officials.
Types and Format of Petitions
We can classify petitions generally into four types:
Political petitions—have a specific form, address a specific rule set by the state or federal government. Typical examples include nominating petitions filed by political candidates to get on a ballot, petitions to recall elected officials, and petitions for ballot initiatives. They are shared publicly to solicit signers, and typically signers must be U.S. citizens, registered voters, and live in the election district addressed by the petition wording.
Legal petitions—ask a court to issue a specific order in a pending case or lawsuit, typically filed by attorneys according to court rules using specific forms.These are not shared beyond court and involved parties.
Public Purpose petitions—ask officials to take or not take a specific action. They might be addressed to policymakers, government bodies, or administrative agencies. These are shared publicly to acquire signers. Requirements are minimal or absent.
Internet petitions—are conducted entirely online. They are not always specific as to what actions to take and do not follow established civic or political processes. They are effective at raising public awareness about an issue.
There are no legal requirements for public purpose and internet petitions. They’re often simply raising awareness about an issue. All successful petitions, regardless of whether they have legal requirements, tend to follow a basic format. They include a clear statement of purpose, any supporting facts, and request signatures. Political petitions, which do have legal requirements, provide excellent examples of a typical petition format. These forms will typically ask for a signatory’s printed name after their signature, as well as an address and whether they are a registered voter. There are also usually questions for the petition circulator, or the person collecting signatures. The examples provided illustrate these characteristics.
Women’s Petitions to Congress in U.S. History
Women’s use of petitions is especially significant in American history. Their petitions were major parts of important national social movements, including the abolition of slavery, but especially, the campaign for woman’s suffrage.
The first recognized nationally organized petitioning drive in the United States was a protest against the federal government’s removal of the Cherokee Indians from their native lands in the eastern United States in 1830. Leaders included Harriet Beecher Stowe and Angela Grimke, who both would later become leaders in the movement to abolish slavery. The petitions were ignored by Congress, and the Cherokees were forcibly removed from their land, the historical moment now known as the Trail of Tears. But the petition effort has been recognized by historian Mary Hershberger as “the first time American women became active on a political scale.” Martin van Buren, who was vice president and then president during the Cherokee removal, wrote that “a more persevering opposition to a public measure had scarcely been made.” It wasn’t long after this that abolitionist groups, many organized by women, began petitioning Congress to end slavery in the United States.
On May 26, 1836, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a gag rule, declaring that all petitions regarding slavery would be tabled without being read, referred, or printed. The rule emboldened and energized petitioners, who pointed to the suppression of the debate as an infringement of the rights of all Americans. Former President John Quincy Adams, now returned to Congress, led the cause for repeal of the rule. The House voted to repeal the gag rule on December 3, 1844.
Women submitted more petitions to Congress in the decades that followed, for both an end to slavery and in favor of women’s suffrage. A major petition in support of women’s suffrage emerged from the first major meeting of suffrage movement leaders at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. By 1878, Congress had received petitions for suffrage from 30,000 women across the United States. Petition drives became a significant hallmark of the women’s suffrage movement. Drives extended as late as 1919-1920 as individual states ratified the 19th Amendment, one by one, until the constitutionally required 36 had ratified.
Much petitioning today is conducted online, or by paid professionals hired by a campaign or political action group. But the goals of petitioners today are the same as the goals of petitioners past: effectively asserting strength in civic numbers in an effort to compel policymakers to listen and act. So, when we sign a petition, we can be sure that we’re following a long tradition of pursuing civic and political action individually to achieve a much larger political social goal.