“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”
The Declaration of Independence has been called “American Scripture” because of the justifiable reverence by Americans for this foundational document of natural rights republicanism. The Declaration was a seminal moment in the history of America and of the world. However, this fact can sometimes cloud understanding of the historical context of the Declaration.
The colonists and British went to war at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. The siege of Boston lasted some nine months before the British departed and prepared a massive invasion force of redcoats and foreign mercenaries for New York. Still, most American colonists were reluctant to separate and preferred reconciliation with the mother country. They identified as English and were loyal subjects of the king who thought the dispute could be ended once a ministerial conspiracy against American rights was ended.
The ravages of war and pamphlets such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense finally pushed the Americans to declare independence but not before much deliberation and a titanic debate in the Second Continental Congress. On July 2, the Congress adopted the resolution for independence and the Declaration of Independence two days later.
The war followed from a decade of tyranny, taxes, and violations of the colonists’ right to govern themselves by their own consent. The colonists continually sent petitions to king and Parliament to protest these oppressions and humbly ask for a redress of grievances. The right of petition was a traditional right of Englishmen with a long history reaching back to the Magna Carta (1215) and the Bill of Rights (1689). The colonists were angry about the violations of their rights and liberties but were just as irate that their petitions were ignored or treated with disdain.
The coming of the Stamp Act initiated a decade of petitioning king and Parliament for the rights of the colonists as Englishmen especially no taxation without representation. For example, the Virginia House of Burgesses agreed to a petition in December 1764 that was largely drafted by planter, Landon Carter. The petition emphasized that it was humbly submitted with “all due reverence” and “in a respectful manner.” Most importantly, it claimed the “freedom which all men, especially those who derive their constitution from Britain, have a right to enjoy.” The Burgesses asserted that “a fundamental principle of the British Constitution” was that “the people are not subject to any taxes but such are laid on them by their own consent.”
The Stamp Act Congress issued a Declaration of Rights in Oct 1765 in the form of a petition as a “dutiful and loyal address” and “humble application” for colonial rights. The petition began with several important points that appeared in almost all petitions throughout the 1760s and 1770s. It emphasized that the colonial subjects owed allegiance to the king, but the colonists were “entitled to all the inherent rights and privileges of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great Britain.” Their rights were guaranteed by colonial charters, the British Constitution, and natural right. Therefore, the body made the usual assertion of no taxation without consent.
Parliament repealed the Stamp Act because of the complaints of British merchants not the various petitions that were carried across the Atlantic. The colonial boycotts significantly impacted the profits of British merchants who themselves petitioned king and Parliament for relief. However, in 1766, the Parliament coupled the repeal with the Declaratory Act reasserting its authority over the colonies. After the Stamp Act, the colonists dispatched hundreds of similar petitions with the above themes to Great Britain to protest the Townshend Acts, the Tea Act, and the Coercive Acts.
In July 1775, in the wake of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Second Continental Congress coupled the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms with one last highly significant petition to the British. In the Olive Branch Petition, the Congress focused on the war raging between the colonies and the British. The Olive Branch Petition blamed the “artful and cruel” ministers advising the king for causing open hostilities. The colonists begged the king for a reconciliation for “stopping the further effusion of blood” with their British brethren and “restore the former harmony” with them.
The Olive Branch Petition was ignored just like all the previous petitions. On August 23, George III responded by declaring the colonies in a state of open rebellion. However, it still took almost another year of war before the colonists declared independence. In the Declaration of Independence, one of the listed grievances addressed the ignored colonist petitions:
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
The American political regime was a republic that recognized the importance of representation and the right of petition. The Constitution created a national Congress that was close to the sovereign people and would receive their petitions and listen to their grievances. The First Amendment formally recognized the right of petition: “Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people…to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The right of petition has been the center of vigorous democratic debate and deliberation throughout American history. Abolitionists sent petitions against slavery and the slave trade as early as the First Congress in 1790 and in the 1830s and 1840s when petitions flooded Congress, and John Quincy Adams heroically battled against the Gag Rule. This one example demonstrates that the grievance about the right of petition was not an ancient complaint in a foundational document from hundreds of years ago with no relevance to today, but part of a vibrant democracy.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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