As the primary catalyst for legislation, petitions played a vital role in Virginia politics before 1865. Legislative petitions serve as a vibrant register of popular opinion on matters both public and private. Additionally, they are a useful tool in historical and genealogical research, often containing hundreds of signatures as well as supplementary documents such as maps, wills, naturalizations, deeds, resolutions, affidavits, judgments, and other items.
One of the most basic civil rights that English settlers brought with them to Virginia was the right to petition the government. Legislative petitions became the only form in which private or specific local or provincial matters could be introduced for deliberation in the House of Burgesses. With the adoption of the U.S. Bill of Rights in 1791, the right "to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" was guaranteed.
Petitions enabled citizens to communicate with their state representatives, serving as an important indicator of public opinion. The right to petition was not restricted by class, race, or sex; as a result, women, free Black people, and enslaved people petitioned the General Assembly, although these groups were denied the right to vote. Petitions usually addressed local needs, including internal improvements (such as canals and roads), the troubles that sheriffs encountered in collecting taxes, and county divisions. Petitions often sought legislative action, financial aid, and divorce. Petitions also document requests for the emancipation of enslaved persons, campaigns for the abolition of slavery, and complaints about the activities of free Black people. Religious petitions ranged from philosophical calls for religious freedom to proposals for lotteries to fund new church buildings.
Over the years, many petitions were legally withdrawn from the clerk’s office, and others were lost. The present Legislative Petitions collection contains nearly 25,000 items dating from 1776 to 1865, as well as some petitions presented to the House of Burgesses and the Revolutionary Conventions. Surviving petitions dating prior to 1776 may be found in the Colonial Papers, a fragmentary collection that includes letters and petitions to the royal governors and House of Burgesses.
Legislative petitions, 1776–1865, are available on microfilm in the Second Floor Reading Rooms. The collection is organized into the following series: I. Counties (Reels 1–207), II. Cities (Reels 208–228), III. Kentucky Counties (Reels 229–230), IV. Miscellaneous – Chronological (Reels 231–239), and V. Miscellaneous – Alphabetical (Reel 240).
Religious petitions, 1776–1802, are part of the Legislative Petitions microfilm but are also available as a separate microfilm collection (Miscellaneous Reels 425a, 425b, 425c). The microfilm includes a typescript calendar of religious petitions and 423 original petitions.
Colonial papers, 1630–1778, include petitions to the royal governors, their deputies, and the House of Burgesses. This collection is available on Miscellaneous Reels 609–612.
Church, Randolph W. Virginia Legislative Petitions: Bibliography, Calendar, and Abstracts from Original Sources, 6 May, 1776–21 June, 1782. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1984.
Eckenrode, H. J. A Calendar of Legislative Petitions, Arranged by Counties: Accomac–Bedford. Richmond: D. Bottom, Superintendent of Public Print., 1908.
Researchers have abstracted selected petitions from several localities, including Caroline, Charles City, Cumberland, Gloucester, Henry, Isle of Wight, James City, King William, Nansemond, New Kent, Northampton, Rockingham, Southampton, Surry, Westmoreland, and York counties. These abstracts are available at the Library of Virginia.