Primary Sources: Freedom of Petition

Congress shall make no law abridging … the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Freedom of Petition in the First Amendment

“Olive Branch” Petition (1775) – Petitioning the King for a redress of grievances was a right enshrined in the English 1628 Petition of Right. Aggrieved colonists at the outset of the American Revolution, still seeing themselves as Englishmen, used their freedom of petition to address King George III. When their petitions were ignored, the American Revolution began in full-force and led to the independence of the United States, the adoption of the Constitution, and the First Amendment.

Petition for the Abolition of Slavery (1853) – Some of the most frequent uses of the freedom of petition in antebellum America were petitions collected by abolitionists. These petitions slowly raised national awareness and instigated Congressional conflicts, both of which led to the outbreak of the Civil War and the eventual end of slavery. 

Petition Against the Annexation of Hawaii (1897) – Unfortunately, some of the most well-intentioned petitions fall upon deaf-ears. This petition, against the annexation of Hawaii by the United States, went ignored, and led to the colonization of Hawaii and eventually its statehood.

Case Syllabus: McDonald v. Smith (1985) – In 1981, David Smith brought a libel suit against Robert McDonald claiming that Mcdonald had included knowing and malicious lies in a letter to the President concerning Smith’s possible appointment as a United States attorney. Smith claimed that such claims damaged his chances of appointment, his reputation, and his career. Since the alleged libel was contained in a letter (petition) to the President, McDonald demanded judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the Petition Clause of the First Amendment protected his right to express his views without limitation. The case reached the Supreme Court.

Nomination Petition for Annual School Election (2010) – The freedoms found in the First Amendment, including the freedom of petition, don’t only apply to the national government. They apply to local and state governments, as well. This is a petition concerning a local school election and is a testament to how the First Amendment works in our own local communities.