Beyond the Ballot:

The Right of Petition



“The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., December 5, 1955

MANY MEMBERS OF THE REPUBLIC’S FOUNDING GENERATION HAD misgivings about the direct involvement of citizens in government. Political theorist and later president James Madison argued that self-interested competing groups within society would undermine the public good unless the government was based on a large cross section of representatives to balance this destructive tendency of factions. In contrast to what some called “pure democracy,” Madison and others put their faith in a system of elected representatives who were entrusted with the newly won liberties. If this power was abused, they believed, the next election could remedy the misconduct.

These same individuals recognized, however, that the vote did not replace the need of citizens to voice their views and grievances directly. This right of individuals to petition their government dated back to Magna Carta in 1215 and had critical importance in the political culture of the founding generation. Throughout the American colonial era, petitioning was an important mechanism for presenting individual grievances and addressing local disputes. As protests against the king and Parliament unified colonists, petitioning became a means of collective political action that would continue throughout the nation’s history.

The new governmental leaders recognized the importance of this instrument for political action when they drafted the First Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1791, which barred Congress from enacting laws that restricted “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Over time, the ways in which Americans exercised the right to petition took on new forms. Individuals and groups with very different resources—on the streets, in back rooms, and through the media of their times—have brought their interests and concerns before the nation. Through early eighteenth-century petitioning to today’s Internet letter-writing campaigns, local protests and massive national demonstrations, and formal and informal lobbying of government officials, Americans have exercised this very basic democratic right to shape their country beyond the ballot box.


The simple act of adding your name, along with others, to an official request or demand is an assertion of one’s political identity and rights. The range of petitions presented to the government on all levels has been staggering, from personal complaints over the government’s handling of military pensions, to calls for protection of local industries, to demands for changes in foreign policy. In the 1780s and ’90s, western farmers and artisans petitioned state legislatures for tax relief, South Carolina seamstresses asked for restrictions on imported ready-made clothes, and free black Bostonians sought improvements in education from the city. Possibly the first truly nationally organized petitioning campaign occurred in 1829–30 over Congress’s vote concerning the removal of the Cherokee from their eastern native lands by the federal government. Although unsuccessful in their defense of Cherokee rights to remain on tribal lands, many involved in the campaign would create national networks of political activists who transferred the tactics they learned into the abolitionist movement and calls for women’s suffrage.

While petitioning has been open for everyone to voice their concerns, it was especially important for those barred from voting. In the early republic, mass petitioning provided poor white men, women, free black people, and other minorities a means to voice their grievances and to claim a role in determining the direction of the country. Disenfranchised groups, building on the organizations developed for these campaigns, often extended their demands and ultimately called for equal participation in all realms of political activities.

Inspired by these early petition drives, the gathering of signatures and their submission to government officials continues to play a significant role in uniting groups and giving voice to a wide range of individuals and causes. Whether taking the form of traditional paper lists or electronic mailings, these appeals offer a means for individuals to engage in the political discourse of the day.


Although enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the right to petition became a highly contested issue in the years leading up to the Civil War. In an effort to promote a national debate on slavery, abolitionists organized petitioning drives in the 1830s, calling on Congress to prohibit slavery in the nation’s capital, the one undisputed area that the legislature controlled. Traditionally, petitions to the House of Representative were presented individually and then assigned to the appropriate committee, which would then report their recommend action. Southern delegations and their northern supporters feared that any attention to the subject of slavery would heighten regional tensions and promote slave rebellions. To block the abolitionists’ efforts, on May 26, 1836, the House of Representatives adopted a “Gag Rule” stating that all petitions regarding slavery would be tabled without being read, referred, or printed. Activists countered that the suppression of debate was yet one more example of the slaveholding South’s infringement of the rights of all Americans. Rather than discouraging the anti-slavery campaign, it brought new allies to their cause, who denounced the rule as a violation of their First Amendment rights. Energized by the rule, abolitionists flooded the Capitol with petitions.

The petitioners found a champion for their cause in former president John Quincy Adams, who returned to Congress in 1831 to represent his Massachusetts district. Year after year, Adams introduced antislavery petitions and called for the Gag Rule’s defeat. Each time, the House voted down his resolutions, but slowly the sustained campaign gained support. On December 3, 1844, by a vote of 108 to 80, the House abolished the rule. Though small in its immediate impact, the vote was a major defeat to the supporters of slavery, who recognized that their power to maintain federal backing for their cause was increasingly tenuous.

In recognition of John Quincy Adams’s leadership against the Gag Rule, Julius Pratt and Company presented this ivory cane made from a single elephant tusk to the former president. The cane is decorated with a gold-inlaid eagle holding a petition. On the band below the knob is inscribed Adams’s name and the Latin phrase Justum et tenacem propositi virum (“a man just and firm of purpose”). When the rule was defeated, a jeweler added “Right to Petition Triumphant” on the scroll above the eagle and the date on the tips of the eagle’s wings. Adams bequeathed the cane to the U.S. government. Credit 78

Photograph of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, 1851. Credit 79

Congress receiving petitions on the steps of the Capitol for reduction of federal tax on earned income, December 1929. Credit 80

Petitioning with Your Feet

By every imaginable means, people have come before the government and demanded to be heard. Carrying signs, singing songs, or shouting from a podium, whether eloquent and moving or disrespectful and offensive, these demonstrations are an exercise in the American democratic process.

From small local protests to massive marches in Washington, demonstrators have forced elected officials to confront topics that they often wished to avoid. The array of issues brought before their representatives cuts across any definable political spectrum, from demands for economic relief, voting rights, legislative reforms, changes in foreign policy, civil rights, environmental concerns, and social policy. Local demonstrations had been a longstanding tradition in American political life, and by the close of the nineteenth century bringing concerns before the nation meant coming to Washington.

In the first significant march on Washington, Jacob Coxey, an Ohio businessman and Populist leader, organized an “army” of the unemployed and set out in 1894 to the nation’s capital to call for a government jobs program and currency reform to ease the impact of the economic depression facing the nation. Coxey’s Army would usher in a long history of demonstrations in the shadow of the United States Capitol. Following in their footsteps, women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1913 for the right to vote. In 1925 and 1926, the Ku Klux Klan, flaunting their political might, held two massive processions in full regalia in front of the Capitol. World War I veterans in 1932 occupied land near the Capitol calling for the immediate payment of their retirement bonuses to see them through the Great Depression.

The civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held on August 28, 1963, forever changed the scope and nature of national demonstrations. The city had never seen a demonstration of this magnitude. More than 250,000 people of different backgrounds came together below the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The success of the march and the achievements of the modern black freedom struggle reverberated throughout society and provided a model for social protest.

Activists around the country followed in the path of those civil rights marchers, bringing their issues before their local communities and to the nation’s capital. Whether small demonstrations or massive gatherings, these forms of petitioning the government for political change outside the cycle of elections are now a mainstay for raising issues. The protests following are just a small sampling of the demonstrations that have taken place in Washington in recent years.


In December 1962, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin canvassed civil rights leaders for their support of a mass demonstration in Washington to coincide with the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Randolph and Rustin hoped to unite established civil rights organizations with local community and student movements and build a coalition that crossed ideological lines. On July 2, 1963, leaders representing six national civil rights organizations announced a march demanding jobs and freedom to take place on the National Mall in Washington on August 28. The group appointed Randolph the march director and Bayard his principal deputy and march organizer. In just eight weeks, they proposed to organize the largest demonstration in American history.

As the days before the march approached, no one knew what to expect. Organizers had hoped for as many as 100,000 participants; but would they come, and would their journey be blocked along the way? A national protest of this size had never been staged, and the capital braced for the worst. The Washington police department cancelled all leave. On military bases around the city, thousands of troops were placed on alert, and Pentagon officials finalized their plans to swoop down on the Mall if violence erupted.

By the end of the day, an estimated 250,000 people had participated in the March, and millions more around the world watched it on television. In a day of inspiring speeches and music, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the concluding address. His call for social justice stands out as one of the most powerful speeches in American history. He wove together long unfulfilled promises, the injustices of a segregated society, and a vision of a renewed nation. In repeating “I have a dream,” he summed up the aspirations of the march and the demands of the civil rights movement.

Poster produced by the United Automobile Workers for the March on Washington. Credit 83

On April 17, 1965, a small group of protesters led the first demonstration for gay and lesbian civil rights in front of the White House. The protest, organized by Frank Kameny and others, was the start of a series of public demonstrations in Washington and Philadelphia during the 1960s that gave birth to a new militancy in the gay rights movement. Following in the footsteps of other civil rights activists, these men and women demanded the full rights of citizenship and an end to discrimination by the federal government.

Poster used in Vietnam War protest in Washington in 1970. Credit 85

In the wake of violence against Vietnam War, protestors at Kent State and Jackson State universities, where National Guard and law officers had killed six students, anti-war activists called for a massive demonstration against the widening war in Southeast Asia. The rally, held in Washington on May 9, 1970, attracted nearly 100,000 people and was monitored by 5,000 troops.

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of women winning the vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a group of 1,000 women took to the streets of Washington demanding equality. On August 26, 1970, activists marched from Dupont Circle to Farragut Square, while another group protested across from the White House, calling for equal pay, equal employment opportunities, free child-care centers, and affordable access to abortion.

Poster used in a women’s rights march in 1970. National Museum of American History.

On January 22, 1974, demonstrators held the first March for Life rally at the Capitol steps protesting the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which overturned state laws restricting access to abortion. Since then, prominent pro-life groups have organized an annual march that has brought hundreds of thousands of their supporters to Washington.

An estimated 60,000 workers and activists came to the capital on April 26, 1975, to demand more jobs at a time when unemployment hovered above 9 percent. The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) sponsored the event, held at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Speakers at the event included Senator Hubert Humphrey and labor union leaders. The program for the day was cut short when a few hundred young demonstrators, described by one rally organizer as “unemployed people full of frustration and anger,” rushed the stage.

Poster used at the Rally for Jobs NOW!, April 26, 1975, in Washington. Gift of Deborah Ritter.

For roughly six weeks in the winter of 1978–79, the American Agriculture Movement organized protests near the White House and the Capitol. The agricultural organization called for higher prices for their crops and more federal assistance to small farmers. As a form of civil disobedience, protesting farmers used thirty large tractors to obstruct the city’s streets. They also held state delegation meetings to educate themselves on lobbying, though the government ultimately met few of their demands.

On April 10, 2006, thousands rallied in Washington to support comprehensive immigration reform. Speakers demanded legislation that would ensure basic rights and a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. In addition to the demonstration in Washington, tens of thousands protestors marched in dozens of major cities around the country.

The League of United Latin American Citizens created this poster for the April 10, 2006, demonstration in support of immigration reform.

Following the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, a number of conservative groups organized in opposition to the new president’s agenda and staged a number of demonstrations around the country. On Tax Day 2010, the newly formed Tea Party movement held large demonstrations in Washington and other major cities throughout the United States. Among the central issues that demonstrators rallied around were an end to deficit spending, a lowering of the national debt, and tax cuts. Waving “Don’t Tread on Me” yellow flags and posters with slogans harkening back to the American Revolution, many Tea Party supporters claimed that their ideals were a true reflection of the original principles of the Founding Fathers.

Tea Party demonstrators used this poster, playing on Patrick Henry’s famous phrase “Give me liberty, or give me death,” at the Tax Day 2010 demonstration in Washington.

Farmers protest at the National Mall with their tractors parked in front of the Smithsonian Castle, 1979.


Like other forms of petitioning, lobbying involves direct actions intended to influence governmental policy. In this often person-to-person exchange, the array of causes and issues brought before legislators has been far ranging and has included everything from the expansion of civil rights, greater resources for local communities, support for education and health, foreign aid, and very personal self-interest. From the days when politicians were regularly confronted in Washington hotel lobbies and the corridors of the Capitol, direct engagement with government representatives has been a significant way in which people have affected and participated in their government.

Lobbying has been carried out by individuals and informal groups advocating their causes and by well-funded professionals who represent large corporations and established organizations with significant sums of money at their disposal. Nowadays, lobbying has become a very big business, with more than three billion dollars reported spent on just the federal level. And where money and power meet, there is always the possibility that in this representative democracy not everyone is listened to equally.

Although an essential means for citizens to communicate with their government, from the earliest days of the Republic, lobbying and lobbyists have been considered by many a corrupting influence on the democratic process. In 1790, Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay complained that merchants were plying his colleagues with gifts to delay the passage of a tariff bill. The term assumed such negative connotations over the course of the next century that the 1892 edition of the Dictionary of American Politics included among its definitions of lobby the following: “A term applied collectively to men that make a business corruptly influencing legislators. The individuals are called lobbyists. Their object is usually accomplished by means of money paid to the members, but any other means that is considered feasible is employed.”

“The Marble Room in the Senate wing of the Capitol at Washington is peculiarly the haunt of the professional female lobbyist….These female lobbyists are for the most part accomplished, versatile and fair to look upon, and the raw and inexperienced Senator falls an easy prey to their blandishments,” published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 4, 1888. Credit 94

The first efforts to regulate lobbying at the federal level began in the 1870s, when the House of Representative required lobbyists to register with the House Clerk. The resolution was not enforced, and although several bills were introduced over the years to substantially limit the influence of a growing number of professional lobbyists, all of them failed to pass. It would not be until the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 that a system of registration and financial disclosure was put in place. The act was a significant step, but it was soon criticized as ineffective and poorly enforced. A new set of congressional scandals and anti-lobbyist attacks during the 1992 presidential election led to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. It aimed at curbing abuses and strengthening reporting. Any individual or organization that met the formal definition of “lobbyist” under the act was required to register and file periodic statements on its activities. While the act was initially considered a sweeping reform, over time critics have found that much of professional lobbying still happens outside of the reporting system.

Portrait of Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1890. Credit 96

AMERICANS ESTABLISHED A REPRESENTATIVE form of democracy under the Constitution in which elected officials were to act on the behalf of their constituents in overseeing the policies and actions of the government. They did not, however, abandon their rights or involvement in direct participation. Through various types of petitioning, whether traditional written forms, demonstrations, or lobbying, citizens have engaged actively the nation’s political development.

At times the demands and protests of various citizen movements appeared to clash with the executive actions and legislative process of government. Yet these movements often complemented and expanded upon those goals for a nation based on the sovereignty of the people. Across the political spectrum, petitioning, in all its forms, has provided individuals with a voice in government that expanded American democracy from a small ruling elite to a very open electorate. These activists have pushed for social reform, broadened the rights of individuals, shaped foreign policy, and held elected officials accountable for representing their interests. Through their activism, these individuals have encouraged reforms and strengthened democratic institutions throughout the country’s history.

A sampling of materials left behind in Congressional offices in 2014.