The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives citizens the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Over the years, that right to petition has not only included the redress of personal grievances, such as claims for pensions or land titles, but also the redress of perceived social, political, and economic ills -- and ills affecting not just one person, but many.

Petitions of Citizens of California in Favor of a Suffrage AmendmentThe holdings of the Center for Legislative Archives include voluminous petitions expressing public sentiment. These records cover the entire span of congressional history, though predominantly the 19th and early 20th centuries, and relate to a wide range of issues, such as the abolition of slavery, Indian removal, the national bank, tariffs, women's suffrage, immigration, an 8-hour work day, annexation of Hawaii, prohibition, Sabbath observance, and veterans' benefits.

These records provide a glimpse of how Americans thought about issues affecting the country and show how ordinary people used petitioning as a means to advocate Congress to right a wrong. Large-scale petition drives demonstrate the potential political power of groups of like-minded citizens coming together to spur Congressional action on perceived problems affecting national life.

Petitioning also gave the marginalized and disenfranchised a voice in their governance. For example, before the 19th Amendment and the right to vote, women organized and added their signatures to anti-slavery petition drives and woman suffrage appeals. As another example, American Indian nations petitioned the government for the return of their ancestral lands.

Rolled Petition of Residents of the District of Columbia Against the Enactment of a District Prohibition BillA petition may be signed by a single individual or by thousands. Depending on the subject and time period, the statement of opinion or grievance may be preprinted or individualized. Oftentimes, for large petition drives, the petition statement was printed in newspapers or circulars in order to be cut out and pasted onto signature pages that would be circulated in communities. Some petitions contained so many signatures that they were rolled into large oversized bundles meant to make a statement upon receipt by Congress.

Introduced petitions were referred to the committee with jurisdiction over that issue. For many petitions on similar topics, there is a single committee to which they were referred. An example of this are petitions relating to tariffs, which were referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means or the Senate Committee on Finance. But for petitions on contentious or complex topics, there may have been multiple committees that dealt in some way with the subject and to which petitions were referred. For example, anti-slavery petitions submitted to the House of Representatives may have been referred to the Judiciary Committee (if they advocated a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery or the repeal of the fugitive slave law), the Committee on the District of Columbia (if they advocated the abolition of slavery or the slave trade in the District), the Committee on Territories (if they related to slavery in the territories), a select committee, or petitions could be "received" or "tabled" if they fell under the House's gag rule. Researchers should be cognizant that petitions on related topics may be found in multiple series.

Memorial from Representatives of Quakers from New York and Western New England, Signed by George BowneIn order to locate petitions in the holdings of the Center, we need to know the chamber (House or Senate), the committee to which the petition was referred, and the Congress or date. This information can be found in the House or Senate Journals, which are the official record of floor proceedings, or the Congressional Record and its predecessor publications -- the Annals of Congress, the Register of Debates, and the Congressional Globe. For the period of 1789 to 1875, researchers can search these sources on the Library of Congress website: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation. For tips on searching the Congressional Record see our History Hub blog post on the topic.

Once armed with this information, researchers can search the National Archives Catalog using the Center's Research Portal to locate potential file units. Any requests for petitions can be emailed to

While most petitions were not printed, some were published as House or Senate Documents in the Congressional Serial Set and the American State Papers. As an example, see S.Misc.Doc.41-71, available via Google Books. These publications may be found at designated Federal Depository Libraries, or online through subscription databases like ProQuest Congressional and HeinOnline or free websites like HathiTrust and Google Books. Check with a local academic library for access to subscription databases.

For more information on congressional petitions, see section 1.45 of Chapter 1 of the Guide to the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives. And for a deeper understanding of the vital role petitioning played in U.S. history, read Daniel Carpenter's Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870 (Harvard University Press, 2021).


1. Petitions of Citizens of California in Favor of a Suffrage Amendment (NAID: 169164461)

2. Rolled Petition of Residents of the District of Columbia Against the Enactment of a District Prohibition Bill (NAID: 25466456)

3. Memorial from Representatives of Quakers from New York and Western New England, Signed by George Bowne (NAID: 17364176)