“And Your Petitioners Shall Ever Pray”: Legislative Petitions

I am excited to introduce the first guest blogger on Empty Branches, Nancy Maxwell. She is one of my oldest genealogy buddies from back when we first started down the genealogy addiction trail and we’ve never looked back. She’ll be presenting a multi-part series on legislative petitions and the genealogist. Please leave some comments and feedback about this guest series. It’s definitely a resource that is underused by genealogists and I’m learning a lot.

Nancy Maxwell

Nancy has been doing her family genealogies since 1981. Her ancestry is East European Jewish and Turkish Armenian; researching both of which have been extremely challenging and rewarding.

She received her B. A. in English from California State University, Fullerton, M. S. in Library Science from the University of Southern California, and M. A. in History from the University of North Texas. She will begin her Ph.D. studies in history at UNT in August 2017.

Nancy caught the genealogy bug in 1981 and has been at it ever since! She has been the genealogy librarian at Grapevine Public Library since July 2001. She gives talks to the local genealogy interest group as well as outside groups. She is a great believer in getting young people to take up genealogical research and has spoken to kids ages six to 17 about the joys of genealogy.

Nancy has compiled two books that have been published by Heritage Books; Washington County, Arkansas Sheriff’s Census for 1865 and Washington County, Arkansas Miscellaneous Record Book, 1841-1879, as well as a few genealogical periodical articles.

Since the days of Magna Carta, the right to petition the government for redress or for grievance has been one of the most cherished rights in English constitutional history. This belief was carried to Britain’s North American colonies as part of the inherent right of Englishmen to maintain direct access to their government and later became embedded in the United States Constitution. Legislative petitions are one of the lesser-known sources of genealogical information and may be helpful in some instances where other records don’t exist. They are an unexplored treasure of American history as experienced through stories of ordinary people (like our ancestors!) across the country.

Magna Carta
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Why should genealogists know about these petitions?

First, these documents reveal a great deal about our ancestors and what mattered to them. Second, they provide context on our ancestors’ neighbors and neighborhoods. Third, the results of many petitions are now available in books, periodicals, and on-line, and are becoming ever more accessible to researchers.

Some of the things we can learn from petitions include the following: If your ancestor signed a petition to ask that a new county be formed, you know where he was living then. If he protested the building of a mill near him, you know something about where he lived. If he was a Quaker and petitioned for the freeing of slaves, you know his religious affiliation and something of his beliefs. Lastly, If your ancestor signed any kind of petition, you may have his original signature, something very special for 1800 and earlier when such records are harder to find.

American legislative petitions have a long history. The right of English citizens to petition their government was for many years a jealously guarded one. When these people arrived in America, they brought the right to petition with them. As they gradually became Americans, they already knew that the origin of the right to petition was in Magna Carta. Though that right was recognized only indirectly when the charter was drawn up, Magna Carta always serves as the right’s ultimate source. This can be seen in what was later designated as Section 61. Paraphrased, it indicates that if any of King John’s barons violate the great charter’s terms, four barons may petition the remaining twenty-one to redress grievances against the offending barons.

In colonial Virginia petitions appeared as early as the first session of the General Assembly in 1619. They were further codified in English Common Law, written down as Number 5 in the English Bill of Rights on 16 December 1689 which stated, “That it is the right of the subjects to petition the King and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.” Originally petitions were for asking favors or redressing wrongs, but they came to serve many other purposes.

Petitions tell us a lot about what our ancestors considered to be important. When reading these documents, it’s important to understand why certain things mattered so much to them. This is why petitions have to be seen in historical context. We’ll see examples of different petitions in the next few blogs.

Eventually the right to petition government was defined in the First Amendment of the 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, of the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Source: National Archives.
Enrolled original Joint Resolution passed by Congress on September 25, 1789, proposing 12-not 10-amendments to the Constitution. Right to petition is the third amendment here.

Petitions often followed a similar format. The first section humbly beseeches governing body and praises the government. The second section generally spells out the law or action citizens wish to change. The third section usually begins with word “therefore” and presents the rationale for change, often suggests changes, and includes signatures of supporters. When our ancestors petitioned the federal government, a typical procedure was to have a public representative or prominent citizen present their case in front of Congress. Some of the many subjects covered by petitions on both the federal and state level included public improvements, military claims, divorce, manumission of slaves, name changes, division of counties, incorporation of towns, religious freedom, and taxation.

The genealogical value of legislative petitions can make it worth the time spent locating them. They may contain one signature or hundreds, making them a most useful tool in genealogical research for that reason alone. Signatures could even be in the thousands. For example, 2,735 Slovak citizens from Cleveland, Ohio signed a petition protesting that they were classed as Hungarians in the 1910 federal census. Petitions could also be generated by groups and businesses. They frequently contain supplementary support documents useful in research, including maps, wills, naturalizations, resolutions, deeds, affidavits, judgements, and other items. If you find an ancestor in a legislative record, chances are that it was due to a petition.

As genealogically valuable as petitions are, they do have limitations. Not all petitions resulted in legislative acts. Legislative acts were passed without submission of petitions. Petitions may have been returned to petitioners and so are not available for examination. House of Representatives and Senate Journals are the only constitutionally mandated records of floor proceedings, including, among other things, the introduction of bills and the referral of petitions or bills to committees. We’ll see some examples of these journal entries when I discuss petitions presented to the House and Senate in tomorrow’s post.

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