Early Virginia Religious Petitions


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Petitioning in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

Circulation and Presentation of Petitions

The first session of the House of Delegates was held in in October 1776. This was a time of primitive transportation, when travelers by steady riding could cover little more than twenty-five miles a day in lowland country, and perhaps two-thirds of that distance in the mountains. A message sent from west of the Blue Ridge might take several weeks to arrive in Richmond, which became Virginia's capital in 1780, and one from east of the mountains several days at least. The challenges of communication made it difficult for legislators to learn their constituents' needs and wishes until several weeks or months after an issue was raised in the General Assembly. By then debate on the issue had often been closed or the session ended. Under such conditions, petitions sent to the General Assembly proved a most effective and influential measure of public opinion.

Citizens generally sent their petitions to their elected representatives in the House of Burgesses and, later, the House of Delegates. The burgesses consistently encouraged citizens to present their requests and grievances through petitions by guaranteeing that all petitions would be considered. Generally, petitions to the House concerned local needs, and most were signed by no more than fifty or a hundred people. Occasionally, however, an issue arose that prompted wider excitement and widespread petitioning.

From the earliest colonial times, petitions were simply circulated around a given area to obtain signatures, with no official notification to anyone. Signers were supposed to be free and to have attained their legal majority. After the early nineteenth century, the practice developed of posting a notice at the court house stating that a petition on such-and-such a subject was being circulated through a certain area. Sometimes petitions were printed as handbills or in newspapers, probably to obtain more widespread publicity and hence more signatures.

A delegate could be handed the petition before he left his home district for Richmond. Sometimes a representative of the petitioning group would carry the document to Richmond in person, and at other times the petition might simply be mailed to the House of Delegates. The House of Delegates early developed the practice of designating a date during a session after which petitions could not be submitted. This gave the appropriate committee sufficient time to consider each petition before the session ended. Upon its arrival each petition was presented and read, after which--if not immediately rejected--it was referred to a committee. The committee investigated the matter and, if appropriate, drew up a bill on the measure that the petition requested.

The bill then had to pass through three readings. On the first reading it was simply accepted or rejected. On the second reading it could be amended. If it passed the third reading, it proceeded to the Senate for approval or rejection. Most bills approved by both the House and the Senate were declared to be law on the final day of the Assembly session. The petition itself, which was supposed to have been endorsed by the clerk of the House of Delegates at each point on its route through the House, was then finally endorsed as "accepted" or "rejected" and filed with other petitions.

A petition might be routinely rejected if it was improperly worded or took an offensive tone, if its request was already covered by Virginia statute, or if a committee's investigation revealed insufficient cause to respond to its request. The legislature was also notably disinclined to grant any petition's request if a counterpetition campaign recorded substantial opposition to the measure.


Form of a Petition

A petition typically opens with a courteous and respectful greeting: "To the Honorable the Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Delegates of Virginia, the petition [or memorial, or remonstrance] of sundry inhabitants of the county of ________________, humbly sheweth, that . . . ."
The main body of a petition contains a statement of the request or complaint. Petitions were either written in longhand or (less often) printed in handbill form. The length of the text ranges from one short paragraph to several pages.
A typical closing formula might read: "And your petitioners as in duty bound shall ever pray, &c." This phrase appears to have been a workable and generally used condensation of the more cumbersome "and your petitioners shall as in duty bound ever pray for the peace, safety, & prosperity of this Commonwealth; & ever acknowledge & have in grateful remembrance the goodness & clemency of this honorable house."
A petition could be signed by its supporters in their own hands, or by a common scribe. On occasion a signature may be the "mark" of the person named. For example, JOHN {His X Mark} JONES. Use of the "mark" did not always imply illiteracy. It may have indicated that the signer was too sick to write, or too old, or that he gave verbal assent to the use of his name.
If endorsed by the clerk of the House of Delegates, the folder now containing the petition displays the date of this endorsement. If not endorsed, most folders have been dated by an examination of the petition's contents, signatures, or other evidence, often in comparison with contemporary documents such as tax rolls.


Capitol building
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon The Capitol, Richmond, Va. Photographed by William Henry Jackson, c1901. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Reproduction Number: LC-D4-13440