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Right to Petition Predates Independence and the Bill of Rights

The celebration our country’s 232nd birthday this Friday caused me to think about a fundamental American right that is often overlooked and yet is very much a part of the current presidential campaign: the First Amendment right of the people to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

[IMGCAP(1)]To watch presidential candidates trying to outdistance each other from lobbyists, you would think they were fleeing plague- bearing creatures from outer space instead of modern day agents for citizens of all stripes exercising their basic right to influence government policies.

Some may think the right to petition originated with the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791. However, hints of its origins can be found in the Declaration of Independence. At the conclusion of the Declaration’s bill of particulars against King George III for “a history of repeated abuses and usurpations” is the following: “In every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury.”

The right to petition traces back at least to the British “Bill of Rights” of 1689 (if not to Magna Carta in 1215), which declared “the right of the subjects to petition the king.” It was so ingrained in the minds of American colonists as a common right of Englishmen that they were outraged when their petitions to the king in 1774 and 1775, protesting a host of coercive revenue measures and rights violations, went largely ignored.

Petitions from citizens were already pouring in to the first Congress before it even began debating a bill of rights. One from a group of Baltimore tradesmen and manufacturers in April 1789, asking for the protection of infant industries against foreign imports, led to enactment of the Impost Act in July. Another from John Fitch in May, requesting a patent on his method of steam locomotion, produced the Patent Act of 1790.

One of the most dramatic episodes in the history of Congress involved Rep. John Quincy Adams’ (Whig-Mass.) fight against the “gag rule” that suppressed the presentation of anti-slavery petitions. Adams, who had served as president from 1825 to 1829, returned to public service in 1831 as a 63-year-old freshman House Member. In his first term, though not an abolitionist himself, Adams presented anti-slavery petitions from Pennsylvania citizens as a matter of duty to their constitutional right.

It was not until 1836 that he became more involved in the issue. The previous year the New York-based Anti-Slavery Society had circulated abolitionist pamphlets and newspapers in the South, many of which were intercepted and destroyed by pro-slavery activists. These acts expanded the debate over slavery to one involving rights of free speech and free press. With the help of paid and unpaid grass-roots agents and organizers from the Anti-Slavery Society, a flood of petitions inundated Congress protesting the illegal suppression of abolitionist literature and the perceived condoning of such acts by state governments and President Andrew Jackson’s administration.

To counter the onslaught of petitions, a motion was offered in the House by Rep. James Henry Hammond (D-S.C.) to discard any abolitionist petitions “peremptorily” and without mention, thereby implicating another First Amendment right — the constitutional right to petition. After some debate on the right to petition, the House created a select committee to inquire into the matter and report back recommendations. The committee reported three resolutions declaring that: (1) Congress had no constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in any state; (2) Congress “ought not to interfere, in any way, with slavery in the District of Columbia;” and (3) all petitions relating to slavery should automatically be tabled, without printing, referral or further action by the House. All three resolutions were adopted by large margins, without debate, even though Adams tried in vain, using points of order and appeals, to open a debate.

Adams subsequently made it a crusade to repeal the third resolution, the “gag rule,” in every Congress, using every parliamentary device he could conceive, both before and during debate on renewing the gag resolution. Nevertheless, in 1840 the House voted 114-108 to make the gag resolution a standing rule: “No petition, memorial, resolution, or other paper praying the abolition of slavery … shall be received by this House, or entertained in anyway whatever.”

Undaunted, Adams found new ways to lure his opponents into debates about slavery. In 1842, when Rep. Thomas Walker Gilmer (Whig-Va.) filed a resolution of censure against Adams for inviting “high treason” by presenting a petition from his constituents calling for dissolution of the Union over slavery, Adams welcomed the opportunity. The censure trial went on for two weeks, with Adams taking the second week to forcefully speak against slavery. When the 74-year-old Adams said he would need a third week to wrap up his defense, the House welcomed his offer to table the resolution. One of his rivals called him “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of southern slavery that ever existed.” By 1844 he enjoyed his greatest victory by mustering a House majority to repeal the gag rule, 180-80.

It was a significant though not decisive blow against slavery (that would take a civil war). It was also an important reminder of the centrality yet fragility of the right to petition as a foundation stone of American democracy. Citizen petitioners (and their paid advocates) have been agents of change throughout our country’s history. As Adams once challenged, “When you begin to limit the right, where shall it stop?”

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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