Many Americans are exhaling, feeling that their votes have helped defeat candidates in prominent races who spread falsehoods about the 2020 election. In fulfilling their civic duty, they have helped democracy triumph. But there is more to civic duty than filling out a ballot.
In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated whether to create federal rules about who would be allowed to vote. Because states, however, differed in their criteria for voting, ranging from length of residency in the state to the amount of land one owned, the delegates could not agree upon a set of rules that would not disenfranchise someone who already had the vote.
So they opted to move in a different direction for enshrining the right for Americans to be heard: petitioning.
The shift reflected how, in the early American republic, voting was a tool that was only used to choose representatives who would then make decisions for the people within a legislative body.
But petitions were the Swiss Army knife of political activity, allowing citizens and others to send complaints, requests or suggestions to the government. Petitions could be individual or collective, and most importantly, anyone — man or woman, inhabitant or foreigner, rich or poor — could send one. In England, people had had the right to petition the king since the 13th century. In fact, George III’s refusal to listen to protests from American colonists had formed the basis for one of the grievances in the Declaration of Independence, “We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”
In this context, Americans saw exercising this right as far more significant than voting. Therefore, the First Amendment enshrined the people’s right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Petitioning as a civic activity exploded in the first half of the 19th century, with hundreds of thousands of men and women signing petitions. In Massachusetts alone, thousands of people signed petitions on topics ranging from opposition to slavery to Indigenous land rights to the death penalty and the right to marry outside one’s own race. Black, White and Indigenous individuals joined in, and it made no difference whether they were enfranchised or even old enough to vote.
The printed forms that 19th-century Americans used for mass petitions only occasionally distinguished between legal voters and others. Petitioners often ignored the line running down the middle of the page that separated the names of enfranchised petitioners from the “females and others” who also signed.
And petitioning was a powerful political act — one politicians took note of — not the desperate act of people who had no other way to express their opinions. Petitions convinced New York to abolish debtors’ prisons in 1831. Massachusetts passed an anti-kidnapping act to protect fugitive enslaved people in 1843 as the result of a massive petition drive that garnered nearly 65,000 signatures.
Petitions were so powerful that, between 1836 and 1844, beleaguered proslavery representatives in Congress even managed to pass multiple “gag rules” that would protect them from having to read and consider the antislavery petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of Americans, lest these petitions lead to abolition. Former president John Quincy Adams, who had been elected to the House, regularly mocked his colleagues’ refusal to take up these petitions, and they responded so angrily that the gag rule provoked several armed brawls on the House floor.
Given the heated nature of so many of these petition topics, they were surprisingly nonpartisan. A petition in 1851 to Congress from “citizens and electors” of Covington and Perry, N.Y., to end both slavery and the trade of enslaved people throughout the United States received support from Democrats and Whigs alike. When inhabitants from the new state of Michigan protested the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 with a petition to Congress, they explicitly noted that they did so “without distinction of party.” Unlike when they voted, Americans didn’t feel constrained or bound by party allegiance when it came to petitioning.
Petitioning didn’t come at the exclusion of voting. Suffrage rights and voter participation also expanded in the first half of the 19th century. The end of some qualifications, including property ownership, opened the door for universal White male suffrage. Voter turnout among those with suffrage rights boomed, exceeding 80 percent in some election cycles.
But while the repeal of property qualifications and the rise of universal White male suffrage did substantively expand voter participation, it also deprived propertied men of color and women of their voting rights. This was the case in New Jersey, where, in 1807, the state dropped the property requirement while restricting the vote to White men. Black men and White women who owned property lost suffrage rights. Most other states that had permitted landholding Black men to vote followed suit, and after 1819, no new states permitted Black suffrage.
This exclusion was compounded because universal White male suffrage made voting look like the only way to participate in democracy. Elections became more frequent, more contested and more exciting. That helped reduce the attraction of the petition.
At the beginning of the Civil War, freewheeling, nonpartisan, inclusive petitions fell out of favor and never completely recovered. If you couldn’t vote, you couldn’t speak. The early era of the women’s suffrage movement relied on petitions, but only through the 1850s. Two decades later, the passage of the 15th Amendment granting suffrage to Black men — and the fierce opposition that Black male voting faced — revealed how essential voting had come to seem to both democracy and citizenship. Many Americans who could not vote in the 20th century continued to engage in politics, but not through petitions.
These days, petitioning has lost the power to drive members of Congress into a defensive crouch — as the antislavery petitions in the 19th century had. The process of creating, signing and sending petitions once had other powers as well. Nineteenth-century petitioning created opportunities for wide civic engagement, deliberative participation and volunteerism.
These are the activities that continue to underpin democracy and to sustain it. Although online petitions do not seem to offer these same possibilities, we can find them elsewhere. Nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters still advocate for issues through education and deliberation. Nineteenth-century Americans might not recognize these forms of civic engagement, but they would appreciate the energy that fuels them.
Today, we owe it to each other to ensure that all American citizens can cast a ballot — but staying politically involved beyond voting, echoing the tradition of those who signed petitions in the 19th century, can safeguard our democracy. The elections may be over, but our activity as citizens is not.