Sunday, July 20, 2008

The political and legal pedigree of the petition - a time honored democratic tool

Petitions have a special place in the history of the United States of America. As a last-ditch effort to avert a war with England, in July of 1775 The Second Continental Congress made a final effort to seek reconciliation with Britain. The chief advocate of this effort was John Dickinson, a conservative delegate from Pennsylvania, who authored the Olive Branch Petition. King George III refused to receive the petition when it reached him in August of 1775. [source][source]

One year later, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and on July 4, 1776, many of those who had signed the petition George III ignored, signed the Declaration of Independence.[source]

The founders of this country relied on events in English history when they created these documents. Over one hundred years before the American Revolution, members of the British parliament were trying to get the crown to acknowledge legal rights they believed the laws of Britain already granted to free male Britons.[source] In 1628, the upper and lower houses of the British Parliament agreed on the Petition of Right and presented it to King Charles I.[source] Charles was forced to accept the Petition of Right by the fact that he needed money, and Parliament would not agree to subsidize Charles' expenditures unless he accepted the Petition.[source]

As readers of this space may recall, one of the major motivations for the American Revolution was the problem of taxation without representation. That is, American colonists refused to subsidize the later British monarch George III, just as the the British Parliament refused to subsidize Charles I. In both cases, the petitioners of their time sought to hold the relevant executive power to democratic principles and processes as they were understood in the 17th and 18th centuries; moreover, they used their petitions to make it clear that without appropriate response from the recipient they would withhold funds needed and requested by the recipient.

Today, people committed to democracy continue to use petitions to hold leaders accountable. My own favorite example of the moment can be found here.


Anonymous diana said...

You're good, you know.

July 21, 2008 at 12:14 AM  
Anonymous waiting4hrc said...

Heidi, your blog is unique in that it educates as well as presents opinion. I appreciate & enjoy the education.

July 21, 2008 at 4:28 AM  
Anonymous Mirlo said...

Striking comparison, history repeats itself. It always starts with a small group, which grows through unjust treatment until the injustice is somehow overturned.
Things do move a bit faster nowadays, thanks to the Internet.

July 21, 2008 at 6:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you! Petitioning was the only right of redress most women in this country had until they could vote.

My favorite example you may have seen noted this weekend, Prof. Li, as it is noted at Seneca Falls as part of the story of the women's movement -- when Anthony and Cady Stanton essentially stopped the women's movement in the Civil War. Instead, they formed the Women's Loyal League to petition for an end to slavery. By 1864, women across the country had garnered signatures that became known as the Petition of Four Hundred Thousand -- and then they gained even more, which were sent to Congress and are archived in the Library of Congress still today.

We also have to remember what happened after the Civil War, when male reformers -- including Frederick Douglass, who had stood with Cady Stanton for universal suffrage -- instead turned on her. They turned her out as president of the American Equal Suffrage Association in 1866. Instead, the men decided that the 14th and 15th Amendments would put gender into our Constitution for the first time in 1868 with the words "black male."

And thus, Cady Stanton and Anthony founded the first woman suffrage organization, and women had to go it on their own for the next half century to win the 19th Amendment to at least negate the 15th Amendment. They had to continue to petition state legislatures and Congress for their rights, they had to wage almost 1,000 separate campaigns at local, state, and federal levels to win woman suffrage inch by inch, town by town, state by state.

And they won. And without the Internet to petition and organize and fundraise and plan events and more. Imagine how much sooner they might have accomplished it for us with our communication tools today!

Thank you, again, Prof. Li. You are one of the "daughters' daughters" who make them proud.

July 21, 2008 at 10:53 AM  

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