Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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PETITION (IN U. S. HISTORY). The first amendment to the constitution prohibits congress from making any law to abridge "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." The right to petition congress is therefore not derived from the constitution, but secured by it. Of course the right to offer a petition implies the duty of congress to receive it, without which the petition would lack its most essential element. Nevertheless, from 1835 until 1844, this duty of congress was more or less strenuously denied by southern members in the case of petitions for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia.


—Feb. 11, 1790, a petition was offered, signed by Franklin as president of the Pennsylvania abolition society, praying for the immediate prohibition of the African slave trade. This prohibition could not constitutionally be effected until 1808; nevertheless, after debate, it was received and referred by a vote of 43 to 14. Madison and other members urged "the commitment of the petition as a matter of course," so that "no notice would be taken of it out of doors." This purpose was accomplished then and afterward; as long as petitions were received and referred, the action of the petitioners there ended.


—Very few anti-slavery petitions were offered for forty years, and those few were against slavery in general. The only exception was the petition of Warner Mifflin in 1792, which was rejected on the ground that it was not a petition, and concluded with no specific prayer. This objection would not he against the new series of petitions which were brought out by the agitation for immediate abolition (see ABOLITION, II.) which began in 1830-31. These prayed that congress, to which the constitution had given the exclusive power of legislation for the District of Columbia, would exercise it in prohibiting slavery therein. At first, in December, 1831, when they were referred to the committee on the District of Columbia, the committee reported formally that the prayer of the petitioners should not be granted. As the petitions became more numerous, the committee ceased to report, and its room became "the lion's den from which there were no foot-prints to mark their return." In February, 1835, there were some complaints of this mode of procedure, and requests for a special committee, but these were not heeded. The peace was not disturbed until the following December.


—PINCKNEY'S RESOLUTIONS. In December, 1835, the petitions began to come in again, and the house of representatives showed a new disposition toward them by laying them on the table by overwhelming votes. This, however, was not enough. Feb. 8, 1836, Henry L. Pinckney, of South Carolina, moved for and obtained a suspension of the rules to offer three resolutions: 1, that all the petitions should be referred to a select committee, 2, with instructions to report that congress could not constitutionally interfere with slavery in the states, and 3, ought not to do so in the district of Columbia. May 18 the committee reported as instructed, with an additional resolution that thereafter all petitions relating in any way to slavery or its abolition should be laid on the table without action, and without being printed or referred. May 25 the previous question, cutting off debate, was ordered by a vote of 109 to 89, and the second of Pinckney's resolutions, above mentioned, was adopted by a vote of 182 to 9. John Quincy Adams offered to prove it false in five minutes, but was silenced. On the following day the third resolution was adopted, 132 to 45, and the committee's new resolution, 117 to 68. Adams refused to vote, denouncing the resolution as a violation of the constitution, of the rules of the house, and of the rights of his constituents. The first of the "gag laws" was thus put in force. It was renewed in substance, Jan. 18, 1837.


—Adams at once became the champion of the right of petition. In the adoption of the rules at the beginning of each congress, he regularly and unsuccessfully moved to rescind the "gag rule." He became the funnel through which all the antislavery petitions of the country were poured. Within the next four years he records the offering of nearly 2,000 petitions, including petitions for the rescinding of the gag rule itself, for the recognition of Hayti, for expunging the declaration of independence from the journals, and for his own expulsion. Besides those whose number he mentions, there was an unknown number of others presented in batches. The most exciting scene of the series began Feb. 6, 1837. Adams inquired of the speaker whether it would be in order to present a petition from twenty-two slaves. The disorderly house, catching but a hazy notion of the inquiry, at once lost its head. Suggestions to expel Adams for having attempted to offer a petition from slaves, to censure him for contempt of the house, and to take the petition out and burn it, were becoming inextricably entangled, when Adams for the first time reminded the speaker that his inquiry as to the propriety of offering the petition was still pending and unanswered, and stated also that the petition was in favor of slavery. The house saw that it had been outwitted, but it disliked to yield. "What, sir," said Waddy Thompson, of South Carolina, "is it a mere trifle to hoax, to trifle with, the members from the south in this way and on this subject? Is it a light thing, for the amusement of others, to irritate almost to madness the whole delegation from the slave states? Sir, it is an aggravation." He therefore modified his resolutions into a censure of Adams for having "trifled with the house," "by creating the impression, and leaving the house under such impression, that the said petition was for the abolition of slavery, when he knew that it was not." By various amendments this was finally modified into a tame resolution that, since Adams had disclaimed any effort to present the petition, nothing should be done, and even this was rejected. But before the final vote, Feb. 9, Adams secured his coveted opportunity for defense, and his savage retaliation upon his opponents in general and in particular, interrupted by explanations and half-hearted denials from them, made up one of the few scenes in congressional history, from 1820 until 1860, when the cowing of an opposition was the result of a northern member's speech. From this time debate with Adams was the most perilous of undertakings.


—In the senate the objection to the reception of abolition petitions had been almost simultaneous. Jan. 7, 1836, Calhoun objected to the reception of two petitions from Ohio for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and four days afterward he renewed it upon a petition of Pennsylvania Quakers to the same effect. But the senate was a dangerous place for such an experiment. No "previous question" could cut off debate; senator after senator drifted off to the perilous questions involved in the institution of slavery itself; and the result was such a portentous debate as had never yet been heard in the senate. Calhoun's point was, that if the petition was couched in disrespectful language it could not be received. But in this there was a cumulative difficulty. To know the language of a petition it was necessary that it should be read, and it would always be difficult for southern senators to listen quietly to petitions in which their constituents and themselves were denounced as pirates, butchers, and dealers in human flesh. King, of Georgia, read Calhoun a bitter and well-deserved lecture on this unstatesmanlike policy of provoking debate on the petitions; and Calhoun could only answer with the reproach that King was destroying southern unity of action. Calhoun's course is one of the few evidences of his lack of sincerity in desiring the preservation of the Union. A democratic northern senator likened him to a pugnacious farmer in his state who was so anxious for peace with his neighbors that he was always willing to fight for it. In this instance Calhoun had abundant opportunity to agitate for the suppression of agitation. It was not until March 9 that the reception was agreed to by a vote of 36 to 10; and two days after, "the prayer of the petition was rejected" by a vote of 34 to 6. This halting compromise between refusing to receive, and referring to a committee, was thereafter the regular mode of procedure in the senate. It had no effect in checking the petitions, and renewed and constant debate on their reception kept the senate in turmoil. In December, 1837, Clay urged their reception and reference, on the grounds that they were evoked mainly by a feeling in the north that the right of petition had been assailed, and that it was "better that the country should be quiet than the senate"; but his advice met no more respectful attention than the warning of Buchanan at the beginning, "Let it be once understood that the sacred right of petition and the cause of the abolitionists must rise or must fall together, and the consequences may be fatal."


—THE PATTON RESOLUTION. Dec. 21, 1837, in the house, John M. Patton, of Virginia secured a suspension of the rules and the previous question, and the passage of a resolution to lay on the table, without being debated, printed, read or referred, and without further action, all petitions and papers touching the abolition of slavery, or the buying, selling or transferring of slaves in any state, district "or territory" of the United States. Adams again protested, and refused to vote, but the resolution was passed by a vote of 122 to 74.


—THE ATHERTON RESOLUTIONS. Dec. 11, 1838, in the house, Charles J. Atherton, of New Hampshire, obtained a suspension of the rules, and offered five resolutions. The first four condemned generally any attempts at the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or in the territories, and any petitions for that object; the fifth resolved that all such petitions should be laid on the table, "without being printed, debated or referred." Again, the previous question cut off debate, and the resolutions were passed on this and the following day, the last or "gag" resolution having in its favor 126 votes to 73. The only apparent result was the immediate appearance of a new line of petitions for the repeal of the Atherton "settlement."


—TWENTY-FIRST RULE. Jan. 21, 1840, by a vote of 114 to 108, the house adopted as its twenty-first rule, that no petition, memorial, resolution, or other paper praying the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia or the territories, or of the interstate slave trade, should in future be received by the house, or entertained in any manner whatever. The decrease of the majority in favor of the repression principle in this vote was striking, and was in itself an evidence that the system could not endure very much longer. Adams had found the support which he had at first lacked, and his yearly recurring motions to omit the twenty-first from the list of rules were defeated by steadily dwindling majorities. The rule, however, only increased the strength of language of the petitions, and their number as well: 34,000 signatures had been affixed to petitions of this nature in 1835-6; 110,000 in the session after the Pinckney resolutions; over 300,000 after the Patton resolutions; and after the twenty-first rule was adopted the signatures to petitions on all the cognate subjects were practically beyond counting. Jan. 14, 1842, another exciting scene began in the house, Adams being again the centre of it. He offered a petition from citizens of Haverhill, Massachusetts, praying for a dissolution of the Union, and asked for its reference to a committee to set forth reasons for the rejection of the petition. The anger of the southern members flamed out again. Suggestions were again made to expel Adams, to censure him, or to burn the petition. Adams at first only replied by advising his leading opponents to "go to a law school, and learn a little of the rights of the citizens and of the members of this house"; but, when the house had voted, 118 to 75, to take into consideration the resolutions of censure offered by Thomas F. Marshall, of Kentucky, the spokesman of the southern caucus, the debate was adjourned until Jan. 28. From that day it continued until Feb. 7, with a virulence surpassing that of the first. Adams had his opponents at a disadvantage, for many of them were avowed disunionists, but he used also every other advantage which could be used. The character of the whole debate may be conceived from Adams' reference to Wise, of Virginia, his bitterest opponent, as having come into that hall from the Graves-Cilley duel, of which he was a promoter, "with his hands dripping with human gore, and a blotch of human blood upon his face"; and from Wise's temperate reply that "the charge was as base and black a he as the traitor was base and black who uttered it." At last Adams, worn out and almost breathless, but triumphant over every assailant, allowed a motion to "lay the whole subject on the table forever," and it was carried by a vote of 106 to 93.


—At the special session of 1841 Adams' regular motion to omit the twenty-first rule had actually been carried, by a vote of 112 to 104, on a motion to adopt the rules of the last house for ten days only; but this was afterward reconsidered and lost. Session after session the majority against Adams' motion dwindled. At last, Dec. 3, 1844, the house, by a vote of 104 to 81, refused to lay his motion on the table, and, by a vote of 108 to 80, abolished the twenty-first rule. The ten years' gripe of John Quincy Adams upon the gag system had choked it at last and forever. Thereafter petitions of every nature were quietly relegated to the limbo of such papers, the committee room.


—Dec. 12, 1853, the ancient rule requiring the presentation of petitions in the house was rescinded. Since that time petitions have been delivered to the clerk of the house, indorsed with the name of the member presenting them and of the committee to which they are to be referred. The clerk then transfers them to the proper committees, and notes their presentation on the journal.


—See 1 Benton's Debates of Congress, 201, 207; 13 ib., 24 (Pinckney resolutions), 13 ib., 266 (Adams' first trial: his speech is at page 283); 12 ib., 705 (Calhoun's motion); 13 ib., 566 (Patton resolutions), 702 (Atherton resolutions); 14 ib., 289 (twenty-first rule); Jay's Miscellaneous Writings, 349; 2 Calhoun's Works, 466; 9 Adams' Memoir of J. Q. Adams, 350; 11 ib., 109; 61 Niles' Register, 350 (Adams' second trial); 14 Democratic Review, 303 (the best argument in favor of the twenty-first rule); 2 Benton's Thirty Years' View, 150; 1 Greeley's American Conflict, 143; Giddings' History of the Rebellion, 108, 158; 2 Wilson's Rise and Fall of the Slave Power, 346; 2 von Holst's United States, 236, 470; Morse's Life of J. Q. Adams, 249, 307; 18, 22, 38 Rules of the House of Representatives. (Compare PETITION, RIGHT OF.)


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