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Legislative Petitions (Research Notes Number 18)

 

As the primary catalyst for legislation in the commonwealth, petitions addressed public improvements, military claims, divorce, manumission of slaves, division of counties, incorporation of towns, religious freedom, and taxation, among other concerns. Between 1774 and 1865, members of the General Assembly reviewed petitions reporting that hogs were running loose through the streets of Smithfield; protesting that an Albemarle County woman’s personal inheritance was sold to pay the debts of her drunken and runaway husband; complaining that two ex-sheriffs of Cumberland County had not been paid; and requesting freedom for William Beck, a slave who rendered "exemplary service" in the military.

Petitioning played a vital role in Virginia politics from the American Revolution to the Civil War. The right to petition was not restricted by class, race, or sex; as a result, women, free blacks, and slaves petitioned the General Assembly, although they were all denied the right to vote. Citizens were encouraged by their legislative representatives to send petitions to Richmond; in turn, the delegates gave each petition consideration and due procedure. These pleas from the people of Virginia serve as a vibrant register of popular opinion on matters both public and private.

General Background

One of the most basic civil rights that the Englishmen who waded ashore at Jamestown brought with them was the right to petition the government. In 1215, the Magna Carta implied the right of the individual to petition the baronial council (the forerunner of Parliament) for redress of grievances. This implied right became explicit in 1407, when Henry IV clearly recognized the right of the individual to petition. In 1689, the English Bill of Rights formalized the right of subjects to petition the king and protected them from retaliation.

In Virginia, legislative petitions became the only form in which private or specific local or provincial matters could be introduced for deliberation in the House of Burgesses. After 1689, both in Britain and in the Virginia colony, petitions were increasingly concerned with questions of public policy. During the eighteenth century, the House of Burgesses itself petitioned Parliament and the crown on political issues. With the adoption of the American Bill of Rights in 1791, the right "to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" was guaranteed.

Historical Background in Virginia

Slowed by primitive modes of transportation, communication posed problems in developing representative government in the newly formed republic. In rural Virginia, legislators often failed to learn their constituents’ needs and wishes until several weeks or months after an issue had been raised in the General Assembly. By then debate on the issue had often been closed, or the session had already ended. To combat this problem, legislators routinely appeared at their county courthouses on designated days to gather information from their constituents before they traveled to the opening of the General Assembly. Most likely, the legislators socialized with the most influential citizens of their counties and knew their opinions already, if they did not share them. Constituents who traveled to the capital on business often made a point of calling on legislators to express their views. By far the most important indicator of public opinion to a legislator, however, was the petitions sent to the General Assembly, which enabled homebound citizens to communicate with their representatives in Richmond. In the 1840s, the influence of petitions gradually declined as the growth of the railroad spurred improvements in transportation and communication.

Petitions usually addressed local needs. Occasionally, an issue would arise which prompted general excitement and thus widespread petitioning, such as the petition requesting religious equality and the disestablishment of the Church of England in Virginia presented during the first General Assembly session on 16 October 1776. This petition was signed by ten thousand citizens and consisted of 125 pages sewn together and joined with wax seals. Other mass petitions concerned religious issues or county divisions.

Form of a Petition

Among the legislative petitions, subjects commonly addressed include internal improvements (such as canals or roads), the troubles that sheriffs encountered in collecting taxes, and county divisions. Petitions often sought legislative action, financial aid, and divorce. Petitions document requests for the emancipation of slaves, campaigns for the abolition of slavery, and complaints about the activities of free blacks. Religious petitions range from philosophical calls for religious freedom to proposals for lotteries to fund new church buildings. For historical researchers, the legislative petition collection provides insight into the daily life and social history of Virginia during the early republic.

Opening. A petition usually opened with a standardized greeting conveying courtesy and respect: "To the Honorable the Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Delegates of Virginia, the petition of sundry inhabitants of the county of ________ humbly sheweth that…."

Text. The body of the petition included a statement of the request or complaint (and often a proposal to remedy the situation), ranging in length from one paragraph to several pages. By explaining their case, petitioners hoped to convince the legislature of the validity of their pleas.

Gloss. The formulaic closing of most petitions ("And your petitioners as in duty bound shall ever pray, &c.,") was abbreviated from the traditional English closing.

Signatures. In the majority of petitions, the signatures of the petitioners were listed at the end of the document. In some petitions, the entire document (including the names of the petitioners) was transcribed by one individual. A mark used in the place of a signature could indicate illiteracy, infirmity, or simply that the individual gave verbal consent for the use of his or her name.

Date. If the clerk of the House of Burgesses endorsed the petition, the folder was marked with the date of the endorsement. If not endorsed, most petitions were dated by internal evidence (such as the contents and signatures), in comparison with other contemporary documents, such as tax rolls. In these cases, the date on the petition’s folder appears in brackets. On some petitions, docketing may indicate a petition’s date of submission, the addressee, and the number of petitioners as recorded by a legislative clerk.

Route of a Petition from Inception to Law

Circulation. In the colonial period petitions were simply circulated around a given area or an entire county to obtain signatures. After 1800, the practice developed of posting a notice at the courthouse notifying residents that a petition was being circulated. Newspaper notices were also used to gain more widespread publicity and, consequently, more signatures for certain petitions.

Presentation. Delegates could be handed the petition before leaving their home districts for Richmond. Some petitions, particularly in the nineteenth century, were simply mailed to the House of Delegates. In some cases, a representative from the petitioning group carried the petition to Richmond to present it personally to the House of Delegates. Upon its arrival before the House, each petition was presented and read, after which, if not immediately rejected, it was referred to a committee.

Bill. The committee drew up a bill on the measure requested by the petitioner. Petitions were presented by a certain date in the session (predetermined by the legislators) to give the delegates sufficient time to consider each request before the session ended. A bill had to pass through three readings. In the first reading, a bill was simply accepted or rejected. On the second reading, it was debated and could be amended. If it passed the third reading, it was sent to the Senate for approval or rejection. Acts approved by both houses were usually declared to be law on the final day of the Assembly session. The petition had to be endorsed by the clerk of the House of Delegates at each step in its journey, then received its final endorsement of "accepted" or "rejected."

Availability of Records

Over the years, many petitions were legally withdrawn from the clerk’s office and others were lost. Nevertheless, the collection at the Library of Virginia contains nearly 25,000 items dating from 1774 to 1865, as well as some petitions presented to the House of Burgesses and the Revolutionary Conventions. Surviving early petitions may be found in the Colonial Papers, a fragmentary collection that includes letters and petitions to the royal governors and House of Burgesses (for example, a 1706 petition from the "Queen and great men" of the Pamunkey tribe) on miscellaneous microfilm reels 609–612. Frequently petitions contain supplementary documents useful in research, including maps, wills, naturalizations, deeds, resolutions, affidavits, judgments, and other items.

The surviving legislative petitions were transferred from the custody of the Secretary of the Commonwealth to the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) in 1904. The petitions were originally folded in legal fashion, endorsed across the back, and filed chronologically by the date of introduction in each session of the legislature. Sometime before 1930, the Archives staff reorganized the collection by county and then by date.

Hamilton J. Eckenrode, the chief of the newly created Department of Archives and History, produced a calendar of legislative petitions in 1908 that abstracted eleven counties (Accomack–Bedford). State Librarian Randolph W. Church compiled the most complete calendar to date: Virginia Legislative Petitions: Bibliography, Calendar, and Abstracts from Original Sources, 6 May 1776–21 June 1782 (1984). Researchers have also abstracted selected petitions from several localities, including Caroline, Charles City, Cumberland, Gloucester, Henry, Isle of Wight, James City, King William, Nansemond, New Kent, Northampton, Rockingham, Southampton, Surry, Westmoreland, and York counties. These abstracts are available in the Archives Research Room, along with a chronologically arranged container list for each county.

Religious petitions from 1774 until 1802 (when the controversies surrounding the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and the sale of its glebe lands and other properties had largely run their course) were abstracted separately, although they are interfiled with the main body of the legislative petitions. A searchable database and digital images for these religious petitions are available through a link on the Library’s Web site. They are also available on miscellaneous microfilm reels 425a–c.

Legislative petitions are available in the Archives Research Room, where special rules governing use and reproduction apply. They are arranged alphabetically by county or city of origin, and then chronologically within the locality. Petitions are also available for areas once part of Virginia, including Kentucky and West Virginia. A preservation project is underway to microfilm the collection; to check the availability of records for research, contact the Archives Research Services staff at 804/692-3888.

Additional Sources

Books

Bailey, Raymond C. Popular Influence Upon Public Policy: Petitioning in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (1979).

Church, Randolph W., comp. Virginia Legislative Petitions: Bibliography, Calendar, and Abstracts from Original Sources, 6 May 1776–21 June 1782 (1984).

Dorman, John F., comp. Petitions from Kentucky to the Virginia Legislature, 1776 to 1791:A Supplement to Petitions of the Early Inhabitants of Kentucky to the General Assembly of Virginia, 1769 to 1792 (1981).

Robertson, James R. Petitions of Early Inhabitants of Kentucky to the General Assembly of Virginia, 1769–1792 (1914; reprint, 1981).

Virginia State Library. Archives Division. A Calendar of Legislative Petitions, Arranged by Counties, Accomac–Bedford (1908).

Articles

Buckley, Thomas E. "‘Placed in the Power of Violence’: The Divorce Petition of Evelina Gregory Roane, 1824." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 100 (1992): 29–78.

Buckley, Thomas E. "Evangelicals Triumphant: The Baptists’ Assault on the Virginia Glebes, 1786–1801." William and Mary Quarterly 45 (1988): 33–69.

Rothman, Joshua T. "‘To Be Freed From Thate Curs and Let at Liberty’: Interracial Adultery and Divorce in Antebellum Virginia." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 106 (1998): 443–481.

Schmidt, Fredrika Teute, and Barbara Ripel Wilhelm. "Early Proslavery Petitions in Virginia." William and Mary Quarterly 30 (1973): 133–146.

Shephard, E. Lee. "Courts in Conflict: Town-Country Relations in Post-Revolutionary Virginia." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 85 (1977): 184–199.

On the Web

www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/petitions/index.htm
This database provides a calendar of Legislative Petitions submitted to the Virginia General Assembly between 1776 and 1865. The database lists the name of the petitioner, locality, date of presentation, description, reel number, box number, and folder number. In addition, each petition has been assigned one or more topics for indexing purposes. See the next link for digital images of the petitions as they become available.

www.virginiamemory.com/collections/petitions
This website provides digital images of the Library’s Legislative Petitions through an ongoing project to digitize the collection starting alphabetically with Accomack County. For a search of the entire collection (without images), see the previous link.

memory.loc.gov/
On the Library of Congress Web site, researchers can search 423 early religious petitions submitted to the Virginia legislature between 1774 and 1802 from more than eighty counties and cities.

library.uncg.edu/slavery/
A searchable database at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro of petitions from Virginia and other southern states, including Delaware, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.