Petition! Petition!! Petition!!!: Mass petitions in historical context

Handbill advertising a petition to the House of Commons for parliamentary reform, 1793. London Corresponding Society.

Petitions are an ancient type of interaction between people and authority that continue to be central to British political culture in the twenty-first century.  At the time of writing over 6 million names have been attached to an e-petition to Parliament to revoke article 50 to enable the UK to remain in the EU.  Petitions and petitioning – the practices of writing, signing and presenting petitions – have taken diverse forms throughout human history in different periods, places and political systems.  In this article, we’ll be looking at how the modern form of mass petitions emerged in the nineteenth century to compare them with contemporary e-petitions.

Petitions are formalised requests to authority signed by one or more people. Although in the Middle Ages petitions were often oral supplications rather than written documents, by the early modern period, England was a ‘petitioning society’ and petitions were also well-established in Scotland.  The first explosion of mass political petitioning occurred in the seventeenth century during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s and in the political crises that preceded the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.  It is clear from the historical record that petitions have historically always been an instrument of rule as well as an instrument of protest. But the double-edged nature of petitions means that they always retain a potential to be subversive as well as submissive. As a survey of early modern Europe has recently suggested, petitions were often as much as a powder keg likely to blow up in rulers faces as a safety valve.

The modern form of petitioning as we know it emerged from struggles for political representation in the nineteenth century, in the UK as well as in other countries such as the United States.  The mid-nineteenth-century House of Commons received ten of thousands of petitions on public issues every year, containing millions of signatures. Mass petitions to Parliament underpinned a series of mighty political campaigns, including anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, free trade and Irish nationalism. This unprecedented scale of mass-signing institutionalised petitioning in the procedures of Parliament and as an enduring part of political culture.  Yet petitions were a politically neutral technology. Conservative, religious and reactionary petitioners challenged advocates of particular reforms. Some of the largest petitions were against changes to the established churches of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Those defending the Church of Wales from disestablishment sent almost 10,000 petitions containing 2.3 million signatures to the House of Commons in one of the last great campaigns before the First World War.

1805 satirical cartoon on whig petitioning for Catholic emancipation. Bodleian Library Curzon b.4(115)

Petitions were a relatively open and inclusive political activity at a time when the right to vote remained limited to a minority of men. All British subjects possessed the formal right to petition, including working-class men, women and colonial subjects. While they did not enjoy equal opportunities to exercise this right, Parliament proved reluctant to block innovation-from-below as petitioners pushed the norms of who signed and what they petitioned about. In 1837 when petitioning for democratic rights, the London Working Men’s Association reimagined the past to declare that the right to petition ‘has been exercised by the whole British people … in all the past histories of the Governments of their Country until now’.  The right to petition was also the ‘cornerstone’ of other popular liberties, as the inhabitants of Chichester proclaimed in 1795, providing a basis for the freedom for people to meet or associate.

As a universal right, petitioning enabled petitioners to challenge the legitimacy of a Parliament elected under a limited franchise. Chartism, the working-class movement for democracy, presented three massive petitions to the House of Commons in 1839, 1842, and 1848, which recorded 1.2 million, 3.3 million and 2 million signatures respectively – and Chartists claimed many more. These petitions confronted Parliament with those excluded from political rights and represented, per capita, a greater rate of participation than the 4.5 million supporting ambulance services in 1989-90 or the 6 million for the Article 50 e-petition.

The often deferent and formulaic tone of nineteenth-century petitions should not be taken at face value – as it often barely disguised powerful challenges to the legitimacy and the authority of Parliament.  As one Irish judge complained in 1834: ‘I consider the epidemic of our day to be a turbulent abuse of the right to petition’, with petitioners speaking the language of ‘insolent dictation’ rather than ‘submissive prayer’.

1782 cartoon shows a “Republican” squatting over an upturned crown, urinating into an upturned bishop’s mitre. A doggerel “Your petitioner sheweth” is written underneath the image. Library of Congress.

As we know and as the Chartists anticipated, their three petitions were all rejected by the House of Commons. Why did they and others petition? This is a question familiar to us today. Many contemporary critics have asked what is the point of e-petitions? This misses the point. Whether authority ignored or rejected petitioners’ requests, petitions and petitioning were valuable for many other purposes. For example, Chartist and women’s suffrage petitioners used the presentation of petitions at Westminster to organise protests, demonstrations and displays of popular support in the centre of political power. Petitions brought popular politics right to the heart of a system dominated by a male aristocratic elite, drawing press coverage.

Most of the mighty nineteenth-century movements, like the campaign for a ten hour day for workers, preferred to organise ‘numerous and numerously signed’ petitions from many places and different religious and social groups on a particular issue. This meant that campaigns could demonstrate the breadth and diversity of popular support.  The early women’s suffragist Emily Davies insisted, in 1866, that ‘[p]etitions either from a place, or from some definite body, are likely to be much more effective than those which come vaguely from the whole country.’  Today, all petitions on the UK Parliament’s e-petitions platform are Chartist-style mass petitions; it is not possible to have multiple petitions on the same issue as was the norm in the nineteenth century.

The People’s Charter, written in 1838, stated the ideological basis of the Chartist movement. British Library

Central to the power of nineteenth-century petitioning were the signatory lists: the names attached to a petition. The act of signing helped to connect and forge individual and collective identities. As a founder of the temperance movement put it in 1840: petitioning ‘induces a plurality of individuals to record publicly their opinions on some point of importance; and as they cannot well retract such a solemn declaration, they are the more permanently combined by the act’. As this suggests, signing a petition was a basis for further collective action, not a substitute for such activity.

Signature gathering to petitions was localised and provoked fierce contests over who could speak for a community. Signatures were usually secured at public meetings and through door-to-door canvassing. Petitioning thereby made possible other types of grassroots activity.  Then as now, opponents questioned the authenticity and quality of signatures and petitioners.  Whereas opponents of the e-petition to revoke article 50 have alleged that the numbers were inflated by bots, in the nineteenth-century claims of false or forged signatures were rife. In 1887 a petition from the inhabitants of Greenwich came under suspicion since ‘half a dozen of the names are the same as those of well-known book-makers’ while others were ‘names of horses, most of which ran in the Grand National’. MPs naturally emphasised the respectability of petitioners they agreed with, while questioning the signatures to petitions they opposed. Misrepresentation was another common criticism. Free traders in Southampton complained in 1840 that a petition in favour of the corn laws was ‘quite unknown to the people of the town’. These claims and counter-claims were intrinsic to the process and were one of the ways in which petitioning enabled a vibrant popular politics beyond the production of a petition and signatory list.

Petitions were important beyond whether their requests were granted immediately or at all, because of the links they created between representatives and the represented in an era before universal suffrage. Paper petitions must be presented by an MP, and for this reason Victorian MPs spent much of their time dealing with correspondence from petitioners, who were increasingly assertive in their demands. In 1831 the future lord chancellor John Campbell received a petition from his native town of Cupar in Scotland, in favour of the secret ballot, ‘with a request to support it, but I shall certainly oppose’. Whether MPs agreed or not with the petitions they presented, the petitioning process provided a way for continuous interaction between them and the people they represented outside the long lags between elections.  Today, MPs can view the number of digital signatures on a particular issue in their constituencies, but petitioners submit their e-petitions directly rather than through the agency of their MP. Some groups, such as Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI), have used paper petitions to sustain the traditional link to (and pressure upon) their constituency MP. As we have seen, the fact that petitioners were often disappointed in the immediate response to their petitions does not diminish the importance and power of petitioning as a tool for building a broader campaign and an enduring instrument for popular politics beyond and outside elections.

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