The Great Petition Campaign to end slavery in the United States and its territories, which spanned the years 1833 to 1844, ranks as perhaps the most significant instance in American history of the use of the right of petition to claim and expand civil liberties. By gathering signatures to support their remonstrances to Congress, abolitionists exploited the potential of the right of petition to mobilize public opinion against the slave power. By employing the right of petition rather than the right of suffrage in their attempt to influence Congress and the American public, abolitionists circumvented moral compromises required by electoral politics and enabled the participation of significant disenfranchised sectors of the abolitionist constituency, namely, free blacks and women.
The groundwork for the abolitionists’ systematic petition campaign of the 1830s was laid before the birth of the nation. Slaves submitted antislavery petitions, which emphasized the contradiction between Revolutionary ideology and the keeping of slaves. Petitioning by abolitionist organizations was begun by Quakers, who were among the earliest whites to condemn slavery as a sin. Philadelphia Quakers, for example, petitioned the Continental Congress in 1783 to end the slave trade, only to be informed that under the Articles of Confederation the central government had no power to regulate commerce. Quaker antislavery petitions met better reception in state legislatures, where during the late 1780s they led to passage of a number of laws against the foreign slave trade.
About the same time that Americans started petitioning the Continental Congress, events were occurring in Great Britain that would profoundly affect the future of antislavery petitioning in the United States. Unlike Americans, who sent a few petitions to Congress each year, as early as 1787 male British abolitionists petitioned en masse for an end to the slave trade. Petitioning allowed British abolitionists to draw on the power of the public rather than having to rely on private attempts to influence individual political leaders. By the 1830s in England, the process of gathering signatures and presenting petitions demanding parliamentary action had developed into an elaborate ceremony, wherein the petitions symbolized a mobilized people and provided a tangible measure of public opinion.
In the United States, however, antislavery petitioning remained intermittent until 1819 when there was a burst of petitioning against admission of the Missouri Territory to the Union as a slave state. Admission of Missouri as a slave state would have upset the balance of power between slave and free states in Congress; because it would have created the first new state from Louisiana Purchase land, its status as slave or free carried considerable symbolic importance. Former Tennessee slaveholder Charles Osborn, a Quaker, organized a petition campaign and used his reform newspaper, The Philanthropist, to rally Ohioans to hold public meetings to draw up petitions against admitting Missouri as a slave state. In New York, some two thousand people met in a hotel to exercise their conjoined First Amendment rights of assembly, speech, and petition to denounce permitting slavery in new states and to compose a petition to Congress. Similar petitions were sent from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, and Vermont.
Further groundwork for mass antislavery petitioning was laid in 1827 when Benjamin Lundy organized a campaign in Baltimore that asked Congress to pass a law providing that all children thereafter born to slaves in the District of Columbia be declared free at a certain age. The House of Representatives tabled the petition, but Lundy was undeterred. In 1828, he launched a lecture tour through the North to encourage further antislavery petitioning. Lundy succeeded in encouraging a young newspaper reporter named William Lloyd Garrison to adopt the strategy of petitioning. In October 1828, Garrison sent petition forms to Vermont postmasters, who paid nothing for their mail, requesting them to gather signatures and send the petitions to Congress.
Garrison and other opponents of slavery submitted enough petitions in 1828 to stir debate in Congress. Petitions for abolition in the District also flowed from citizens of Washington, D.C., as well as New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Free blacks, such as those in Adams County, Pennsylvania, lent their names to petitions, and the free black press praised the signature-gathering efforts of the predominantly white antislavery societies. When Garrison published the first edition of his antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, on January 1, 1831, he urged readers to petition Congress to rid the nation’s capital of the ‘‘rotten plague’’ of slavery. A year later when Garrison contributed to the founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, he and seventy-one men (among whom about a quarter were free blacks) signed a constitution pledging ‘‘to inform and correct public opinion’’ through a variety of methods, including petitioning.
Many other antislavery societies formed in New England and the West during the early 1830s incorporated pledges to petition in their founding documents. Abolitionists adopted this strategy because although early in its history the right of petition was put into practice by individuals making requests of their rulers for redress of personal grievances, by the advent of the Jacksonian era, men frequently used organized mass petitioning to agitate public opinion in order to achieve their political goals. Petitioning, moreover, fit hand in glove with immediate abolitionists’ strategy of moral suasion, which called for the use of moral appeals to awaken public sentiment to induce slaveholders to forsake human bondage.
Male abolitionist leaders endorsed the strategy of petitioning at the national level in December 1833 at the founding convention of the American Anti- Slavery Society. Members resolved ‘‘to urge forward without delay’’ a petition to Congress for abolition in the District of Columbia and named specific congressmen into whose hands the memorials should be entrusted. They also urged the president of the convention to write letters to members of Congress beseeching them to present petitions and to ‘‘fearlessly advocate’’ passage of abolition measures.
Calls to petition issued by the AASS and other male abolitionist organizations at the beginning of the campaign were directed at men and made no attempt to encourage women to participate in the effort. Nonetheless, inspired by the success of English women who, from 1830 to 1833 sent hundreds of thousands of signatures to Parliament requesting an end to slavery in the British dominions, by 1834 growing numbers of American women signed antislavery petitions addressed to Congress. In so doing they departed significantly from the custom of women limiting their petitioning to individual requests about private matters. By petitioning collectively on an issue of national policy women also pushed the limits of antebellum gender norms, which usually constrained them from overt political action out of fear they would be branded unwomanly or immoral. Facing such obstacles, the petition offered women an especially suitable means to participate in the abolition movement because they could use the right of petition—a right that, unlike the ballot, they were generally understood to possess— to apply the force of their supposedly superior morality to reform public opinion on the subject of slavery.
Furthermore, the supplicatory nature of the right of petition held radical potential for women, for natural law assumed that all subjects (and later citizens) possessed the right of petition and that rulers (and later representatives) were obliged to receive and respond to petitions regardless of the subject of their prayer. Abolitionist women relied on the first assumption to claim and defend their right to petition amidst an environment in which their political status, like that of free blacks, was undergoing constant renegotiation.
Women added fifteen thousand signatures to those sent by men in 1835 and 1836, swelling to a flood what was previously a trickle of memorials. As day after day the petitions continued to flow into the House, impeding legislative business, representatives became increasingly irritated. Southern members, many of them slaveholders, insisted on ridding the House of the petitions because they perceived any debate about slavery as hostile to their region. Most northern members wanted to sweep the abolition memorials under the carpet in the interest of political harmony. Because abolitionists strategically composed their petitions to focus on the District of Columbia, where Congress possessed sole authority, representatives who opposed reception of the petitions were unable to use the argument that slavery was a matter for the states to decide.
On May 18, 1836, the House adopted a gag rule to squelch abolition petitions. It stated, ‘‘Resolved, That all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions or papers, relating in any way, or to any extent whatever, to the subject of slavery, or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid upon the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.’’ The House renewed the gag rule at the beginning of each session of Congress and in 1840 made it a standing rule. From the start, Representative John Quincy Adams, elected to the House after having served as president of the United States, vehemently opposed imposition of the gag rule and waged an enduring oratorical battle against gag until it was rescinded in December 1844.
Rather than posing an obstacle, the gag rule provided just the issue abolitionists needed to expand their appeal among the public. The gag allowed abolitionists to link the popular right of petition with the unpopular cause of immediate abolitionism. Moreover, the gag provided evidence for abolitionists’ claim that the South was conspiring to destroy northerners’ civil rights in order to perpetuate the peculiar institution. Whether or not they were genuinely concerned about the plight of the slave, more northerners became sympathetic to abolitionism when the gag rule demonstrated that slavery threatened their civil rights. Not only did the petitions lead Congress to discuss slavery, but the debate over slavery and suppressing petitions also stirred indignation and discussion of antislavery issues among the public at large. ‘‘Wherever the reports of the proceedings in Congress are circulated and read,’’ explained an 1836 report of the Starksborough (Vermont) Anti-Slavery Society, ‘‘there will be a knowledge of the doings in relation to those petitions extended; and this circumstance will serve to stir up the spirit of inquiry in relation to our objects, our principles, and measures, in many places where the merits of the Anti-Slavery Society have heretofore been but little known.’’
Petitioning also enabled abolitionists to reach people who would remain untouched by other forms of abolitionist rhetoric. Indeed, petitions were probably read by more people—congressmen, abolitionists, and members of the public to whom appeals were made for signatures—than was any other form of antislavery literature. Antislavery lectures, newspapers, and pamphlets often reached only persons already converted to the cause, when abolitionists were circulating petitions they spoke face to face with people who would never attend an antislavery lecture or read an antislavery tract. The signing of petitions, moreover, often resulted in multiple benefits because, as one abolitionist explained, a signature on a petition served a ‘‘three-fold purpose’’: ‘‘You not only gain the person’s name, but you excite inquiry in her mind and she will excite it in others; thus the little circle imperceptibly widens until it may embrace a whole town.’’
The Great Petition Campaign not only played an important role in the growth of the antislavery movement, but also fostered women’s social activism and the securing of their civil liberties. Due in large part to the struggles of female abolitionists, petitioning Congress had become an acceptable means of political action for women, and it continued to be a crucial and persistent outlet employed by women determined to participate in politics despite the fact that neither the Constitution nor custom recognized them as full citizens. Indeed, well before they secured the right to vote, women employed their right of petition. For example, they petitioned to demand that Congress deny a reputed polygamist a seat in the House; they also petitioned to press for federal anti-lynching laws. Ultimately, women employed the right of petition as a major means of persuading Congress and the American public to recognize their right to vote.
The Great Petition Campaign, in which abolitionists gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures on antislavery petitions to Congress from 1833 to 1844, constitutes one of the first uses of mass petitioning to force social change. It contributed, therefore, to the ongoing transformation of the right of petition from an individual request to redress a personal grievance to a tool employed collectively by organized groups to mobilize public opinion and pressure members of Congress. Moreover, this campaign sought to end the greatest abrogation of American freedom—slavery—and in the course of so doing, afforded women the opportunity to assert their right of petition and to lay claim to citizenship. The Great Petition Campaign, then, stands as a major event in the quest for civil liberties during the early nineteenth century and beyond.
References and Further Reading