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Legislative Petitions

Virginia legislative petitions (1776–1865, digitized) and colonial petitions (on microfilm)

Form of a Petition

  • Opening. A petition usually opened with a standardized greeting conveying courtesy and respect: "To the Honorable the Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Delegates of Virginia, the petition of sundry inhabitants of the county of ________ humbly sheweth that…."
  • Text. The body of the petition included a statement of the request or complaint (and often a proposal to remedy the situation), ranging in length from one paragraph to several pages. By explaining their case, petitioners hoped to convince the legislature of the validity of their pleas.
  • Gloss. The formulaic closing of most petitions ("And your petitioners as in duty bound shall ever pray, &c.,") was abbreviated from the traditional English closing.
  • Signatures. In the majority of petitions, the signatures of the petitioners were listed at the end of the document. In some petitions, the entire document (including the names of the petitioners) was transcribed by one individual. A mark used in the place of a signature could indicate illiteracy, infirmity, or simply that the individual gave verbal consent for the use of his or her name.
  • Date. If the clerk of the House of Burgesses endorsed the petition, the folder was marked with the date of the endorsement. If not endorsed, most petitions were dated by internal evidence (such as the contents and signatures), in comparison with other contemporary documents, such as tax rolls. In these cases, the date on the petition’s folder appears in brackets. On some petitions, docketing may indicate a petition’s date of submission, the addressee, and the number of petitioners as recorded by a legislative clerk.

Route of a Petition from Inception to Law

  • Circulation. In the colonial period, petitions were circulated around a given area or an entire county to obtain signatures. After 1800, the practice developed of posting a notice at the courthouse notifying residents that a petition was being circulated. Newspaper notices were also used to gain more widespread publicity and, consequently, more signatures for certain petitions.
  • Presentation. Delegates could be handed the petition before leaving their home districts for Richmond. Some petitions, particularly in the nineteenth century, were mailed to the House of Delegates. In some cases, a representative from the petitioning group carried the petition to Richmond to present it personally to the House of Delegates. Upon its arrival before the House, each petition was presented and read, after which, if not immediately rejected, it was referred to a committee.
  • Bill. The committee drew up a bill on the measure requested by the petitioner. Petitions were presented by a certain date in the session (predetermined by the legislators) to give the delegates sufficient time to consider each request before the session ended. A bill had to pass through three readings. In the first reading, a bill was simply accepted or rejected. On the second reading, it was debated and could be amended. If it passed the third reading, it was sent to the Senate for approval or rejection. Acts approved by both houses were usually declared to be law on the final day of the Assembly session. The petition had to be endorsed by the clerk of the House of Delegates at each step in its journey, then received its final endorsement of "accepted" or "rejected."