The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and other abolitionist organizations made made widespread use of this image in their efforts to turn northern Americans against slavery. (Credit: The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Democracy needs activists, gadflies and, yes, “community organizers” both left and right. Ours is a democratic republic, one in which most lawmaking and policy are in the hands of elected officials. But those officials are elected or appointed by citizens, and citizens communicate actively with those who hold power. As political thinkers have known since at least the Roman Republic, however, this requires an active citizenry. Alexis DeTocqueville warned his readers about “individualism,” that “calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.” If everyone isolates, if everyone is content to stay a great “family man” or “family woman,” DeTocqueville worried, then who will keep tabs on the powers that be, not least the government itself?

DeTocqueville’s worry raises another problem: If a society needs activists, whatever their political persuasion, how does it grow them? Where do they come from? It turns out that petitioning – the most common form of engagement with government at all levels in early America – was very effective at doing just this. When anti-slavery activists began to send dozens of petitions into Congress in the 1830s, they could not have predicted the immense, nationwide transformation that ensued.

In 1836, the slavery-friendly House of Representatives “gagged” all slavery-related petitions (almost all of them were antislavery). American women, who lacked voting rights and who considered petitioning their sole and sacred voice in politics, were incensed. Far from backing down, they redoubled their activity. In a recent study published in the American Political Science Review, University of Hawaii political scientist Colin Moore and I report that, starting after the 1836 gag rule, women who canvassed antislavery petitions collected 50 percent to 80 percent more signatures than male canvassers did, walking the same petition with the same request, through the same town, in the same two-year period.

More fascinating still, these women remained active in politics for decades afterwards. A number of them signed the Seneca Falls Declaration in 1848. And for movement leaders active after the Civil War, women were four to five times more likely than men to come to their activism through petitioning. The women who canvassed antislavery petitions were not active in national politics before – many of them were teenagers.

So how does petitioning help create organizers and activists? Antislavery petitioning involved a lot of difficult work. At the most basic level, women had to walk petitions; one petitioner wrote that she walked 21 miles a week in canvassing. That effort steeled resolve. Some petitions were signed at meetings where they were laid out on the table, but even then, women often organized the meeting or spent time circulating the petition afterwards. Yet petitioning was even more political work than it was physical work. Persuading other men and women to sign meant long conversations and often rejection, possibly the threat of violence (even in the North, anti-slavery was not a popular stance in the 1830s). The repeated act of persuasion gave women political and organizational skills that they later used in movements for women’s suffrage and other achievements. And all of this activity brought newly mobilized women into close contact with others who thought like them, allowing networks to form and consciousness to emerge.

What, if anything, does this mean for politics today? To be sure, we’re in a world quite far removed from the 1830s. Most of today’s petitions are electronic. “Canvassing” is done by getting the word out by e-mail, social media networks or Web sites. The kind of in-person, door-to-door activity of persuasion is far less common now. And when petitions they aim to put people or propositions on a ballot, a lot of the canvassing is not volunteer work but is highly professionalized.

Yet many petitions are still walked around towns and neighborhoods, and many are presented to shoppers at malls and chain stores. Beyond petitioning, there are just as many if not more fundraising appeals, voter registration drives, rights movements and get-out-the-vote campaigns that engage in door-to-door canvassing. Where these efforts require the canvasser to persuade and organize, coming into contact with people who both agree and disagree with her, and carry the experience of traveling across geographical and social space, they too can help shape future careers in activism.

The making of activists is not, of course, an everyday activity. The struggle over slavery was unlike any other in our history. Big political conflicts and nationwide social crises often change more than law and liberties. By shaping the experience of entire generations, they reshape politics in the future.

For many young liberals and Democrats, the 2008 election was a watershed moment, and many of them were active in politics for the first time. Will the next organizing moment come for Republicans? Or will it come for a non-partisan movement? If and when that moment arrives, person-to-person canvassing is likely to play an important role.

Daniel Carpenter is Allie S. Freed Professor of Government at Harvard University.