Daniel Carpenter Revisits the Petition in 19th Century America

Daniel Carpenter

Daniel Carpenter joins the podcast to describe how the petition contributed to democratization in America in the 19th Century. We discuss his new book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870. This is the 51st episode of the podcast.

Petition on SpotifyPetition on ApplePetition on Google Petition on Stitcher

The idea of a political system is not simply to be efficient. It’s to have justice. It’s to have the idea that anybody can come to the seat of power and say, ‘Here are my grievances,’ and that doesn’t mean that by making that claim, they will get exactly what they want. But it does mean that they will get a hearing and in that notion, I think, lies again, a certain part of democracy that is not reduceable just to elections.

Daniel Carpenter

Key Highlights Include

  • A history of petitions in the 19th century including an account of the gag rule.
  • The role of petitions in the mobilization of women, Native Americans, the Whig Party, and the antislavery movement
  • How did petitions contribute to democratization of America in the 19th century
  • What would Congress look like if we still had ‘petition days’
  • What can we learn from the era of petition politics

Podcast Transcript

I’m not sure how to introduce today’s topic in a way that will do it justice. Some probably think petitions in the nineteenth century is a little esoteric. But my conversation with Dan Carpenter will surprise you. We explore ideas relevant for democracy today. For example, a lot of conversations right now focus on legislation designed to restrict opportunities to vote that state legislatures across the nation have introduced. But this is not the first time democracy in America has faced challenges. For instance, I see a parallel in the gag rule the US Congress introduced to silence antislavery petitions before the Civil War. 

Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the gag rule. You will. You’re going to learn a lot of history over the next hour. Dan introduces us to examples where marginalized groups used petitions to secure rights and build coalitions. But I hope you’ll find this is really a conversation about a thicker sense of democracy. Dan talks a lot about a democracy of agendas. It’s a perspective many of us overlook, because democracy focuses so much on elections. And in many ways, for all the progress democracy has made over the past two hundred years through the expansion of voting rights, we may have lost something along the way.

Dan Carpenter is the Allie S. Freed professor of Government at Harvard University and the author of Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870. I want to recommend this book to anyone listening. It’s unlike any work on history or democracy I have read in some time. It’s a big book, but it reads surprisingly fast. So, don’t get intimidated by its length. 

Now Dan and I do not touch on every topic in his book. This is a broad subject with a lot of implications for politics today. So, feel free to contribute to the conversation. Add a comment at democracyparadox.com where you will find a complete transcript or mention me on Twitter @DemParadox. I also enjoy receiving your emails and try to respond to every one. So email me at democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com. But for now this is my conversation with Dan Carpenter…


Dan Carpenter, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.


Thanks, Justin. Great to be here.


Dan, your book made me realize the purpose of the petition has really been lost in modern democracy. I went back to the first amendment and it reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting… the right of the people… to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” I have signed a few petitions, but never for a redress of grievances. Your work really shows that the petition was viewed very differently, especially in the early 19th century. Can you help explain what the petition meant to people during this period?


It was a part of the fabric of everyday life. People petitioned, not just Congress, not just the president, but their state legislatures, probably as much or more than they did Congress.  They petitioned their governors. They would petition local councils. They would petition pastors, bishops, priests, rabbis, you know, Native American women would petition a male council of elders. It was a part of the everyday fabric of life and there was a mechanism that our culture, borrowing in part from a range of cultures, European cultures, indigenous cultures, Black political cultures, Hispanic, political cultures, but whatever that culture, there were very common, not identical, but very common ways of expressing a grievance in a prayer that extended back centuries in many cultures and where a response was expected.

And that response was often negative, ‘We hear your grievances, but we do not think that they are worthy of redress at this time’ or that, ‘We’re only going to give you a small part of what you’re asking for.’  But that notion of a petition is as old as democracy itself, probably older. As old in some respects as human civilization itself and so, it was central to people’s identity as a human being and as citizens and as non-citizens, they all felt that the petition was something that they could turn to, even if they didn’t have legal rights, even if they didn’t have property rights, even if they didn’t have voting rights.

So, it was so central as to be assumed.  And at some level, the First Amendment that you describe interestingly enough, that it’s petition the government and not just petition Congress. And so that amendment should be read, as the other things in the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. These are things that Congress cannot do and Congress cannot abridge. That right to petition itself, but also the right to petition any other office of government for a redress of grievances.

And so, at some level, because the petitions there were tens, hundreds of thousands of them, they were everywhere. They were visible, but in part, the culture petitioning, the idea that anybody could ask any seat of power for something, that became even more democratic, even more egalitarian during the period I write about. But that assumption was everywhere in ways that I think we have to do a little bit of detective work to uncover. One sees it explode, for instance, when it’s threatened and when people begin to threaten the right to petition and a right that’s understood as a right to petition even outside of the constitution then people really fiercely protect it.


I like how you describe it as a way of everyday life. You gave numerous examples of petitions that were signed by small groups of people. One that really stood out because it was early in your book was a Jefferson County petition of just six women in 1846, a few years before Seneca Falls. And the reason why I bring it up is because the idea that you would have a petition recognized by authorities with just a handful of signatures just amazes me. Because these days, when we talk about petitions, they have signature requirements to be able to do what they’re trying to do. It’s a very formal process. It just strikes me as such an informal and, in many ways, almost more democratic process than exists in  a lot of our communication with authority and office holders today.


So that’s a fascinating petition, and I should mention that, my work with that petition builds on a really important book Untidy Origins by the historian Lori Ginzburg. She’s the one who really wrote the book on that petition. At some level, it’s the first petition for a more constitutional right of women’s suffrage and women’s political equality, predating Seneca Falls by two years. I want to mention two things about that petition and the way it differs from the world that we know now. You know, you and I can go online and we can sign a petition. Nothing in those electronic petitions requires a response and nothing formally or legally in the period that I’m writing about required response either.

It was what political scientists would call an informal institution. There were no formal penalties attached to the failure of a legislature to respond to a petition. But it was considered a violation of a deeply held political norm that extended before the Republican and Democratic periods before the modern period. But also, especially with parliaments and the rise of legislative power in the Anglo-American world. The idea that a state legislature or a constitutional convention, and it’s worth mentioning that that petition of those six women of Jefferson County was to the New York State Constitutional Convention. Any such body like that would be required to give the petition a reading, potentially a hearing, and a response. And that I think is something that we just don’t have as much today.

The other thing I would say is I just think it was between what I would call directed petitions, which is a prayer from one party with grievances to a seat of authority and then the plebiscitarian petition. It’s not asking for anything. It’s a mechanical tool. Once that signature threshold is passed then a candidate or a proposition is mechanically placed upon a ballot. There’s no response. You’re just setting up an election. And there’s a lot of power in that. And I don’t necessarily think that plebiscitary petitions are a bad thing, but we should step back and realize just what an immense departure modern petitioning has become, where most of the complaints we registered by petitions are clicktivism and they don’t require a response. It’s not institutionally embodied.

And the most formal petitions that we do are also not going to get a response. They’re again just these mechanical tools for placing a candidate or a proposition on a ballot.


You’ve mentioned this term prayer and I had never thought of the petition as being a prayer. Can you help explain why it’s called that and what that really meant in terms of the political tool of the petition?


I mean, it’s one of the reasons I start the book with this observation that at some level democracy and petition are two words that just don’t go together at least in our usual imaginary. And the reason that that makes sense is that the petition is an act of supplication. It is an act of acknowledging that someone else has the power or the authority to do something. And I’m going to ask and not necessarily demand, because I don’t have either the bargaining, or the formal authority, or the military power, or the force to make it happen. So, it’s a context in which I am making an appeal based on information, based on rhetoric, based on emotion and that the ultimate decision at some level is assumed to rest in the power of the office holder or office holders who receive the petition.

Now it kind of embeds an implicit hierarchy and in some cases an explicit hierarchy. You know, the petitioner is far older than any democracy that we know. One sees petitions referred to in the Old Testament. There were petitions in Egyptian civilizations. Petitions go back many thousands of years, but, I think, the kind of petitioning that I want to talk about really changed substantially in the rise of European monarchies. The idea that the petition is presented to a Monarch or presented to a Bishop. And these people have authority and at some level, because, especially Kings, but also bishops, carried in part the imprimatur and the legitimation of God. In that Judeo-Christian world you were, in at some level approaching the Monarch as a sovereign in a way that you would approach God.

And, of course, prayer and petition if you go back to the Latin root, petitio, it is to request something. It is to pray for something and what I think that medieval Europe especially brought us was, in part the rise of parliaments, along with monarchies that would receive and adjudicate on these petitions. Those regimes were in many respects kind of church states. France’s king proclaims the authority, the imprimatur of God’s rule, so did England, so did Spain.

And that notion of petition remains with us in some ways including what might seem arcane rules of ars dictaminis. The idea that there’s a set of procedures, set of steps that one would take in preparing a petition. Only the last or second to last would be the petitioner. You’d have a salutation, a salutation. You’d have a narrative of appealing to the mercy, the justice and the grace of the king, that was called the narratio. Then you’d have your petitio only at the end, but all of this was in what we would today call a petition.


You know, it’s interesting how things that we think of today as being very democratic did not develop necessarily from democratic origins. You just kind of mentioned how the petition arose as sort of a medieval institution. Parliaments also arose as a medieval institution and it did not actually arise as a democratic institution. It was very aristocratic, but it had democratic inclinations. It had characteristics that could easily become adapted into a democracy. And I just see such a strong parallel with that alongside petitions. You’ve got a really strong quote in your book. You write, “Democratization by petition required in some sense, the remaking of the petition by the populace.” You’ve given us some sense of how the petition began. How did people remake the petition into a tool for democracy?


Let me first begin just by saying that it’s really important to recognize the monarchical Imperial, medieval, in some cases even ecclesiastical origins of a lot of the institutions that we today call democratic. So, juries would be another one. My colleague Elizabeth Kamali at Harvard Law School has a great book on the idea of mens rea and the jury system in that period. And that poses exactly the puzzle that you just mentioned which is, ‘Okay, wait a minute. There’s something of a remaking of the petition that happens here.’ It’s not just the old petition that provides a way for democracy. So I would say two things. First, there was an aspect of equality that was always there in the petition that anybody could approach the throne. Anybody could approach the bishop. Things like that.

And that was important because even during the emergence of colonial assemblies in British North America, voting rights were restricted. They were restricted by property. They were restricted by class. Of course, they’re restricted by race. And of course they’re restricted by sex and so the petition, even before the American Revolution and even before the founding of the US Constitution was understood to be much more available to all persons. There’s a small D democratic notion and egalitarian notion deeply embedded in petitioning already. But I would say several things began to happen.

The first is one begins to see a lot more petitioning that’s connected to one another in the architecture of a campaign. And so, one thing I think is really crucial about the democratization of the petition is that it’s not just single acts of supplication. It is organized acts of collective supplication. In some of these cases, these petitioning campaigns spread across hundreds, if not thousands of miles. All petitions being sent to a single place such as the US Congress. Or consider the vast petitioning of the House of Commons from the British West Indies to British Canada. So, one thing is the connection of one petition to another, in the architecture of a campaign.

The second is this aspect of signatory lists. So, most of the petitions before, I would say, the year 1500 would come from an individual or a group signing as a corporation signing as what people would call a signatory community. And there are a bunch of different documents of this kind of form. There are conventions people would sign, contracts, people would sign a whole range of things. But what happens increasingly from the mid 16th century onwards, and I think it possibly goes back earlier than this, one starts seeing several hundred names on different, they wouldn’t call them petitions, they would have called them requetés, to the French crown to set up an estates general. Then you get the English Civil War, mass petitions of thousands of signatories. You get that kind of petitioning again in the American revolution.

But the proliferation of that kind of petitioning Is just really a hallmark of this period. One sees a petition of almost 90,000 signatures from French Canada, represents almost one in five of the total population. One sees petitions like the scroll petition from the Mormons at Nauvoo as they’re being persecuted by Governor Boggs of Missouri. One sees the mass petitioning campaigns of the anti-slavery era. One sees free black men in the British west Indies, one sees the Cherokee signing by the thousands including Sequoia syllabary signatures.

And at that level that kind of petition is more than just a request, it’s more than simply a prayer that says, ‘We, the powerless, are asking you the occupants of an office, the seat of authority for something.’ It’s like, ‘We, and by the way, we are several hundred thousand strong.’ And so, what I call the accountability of voice begins to matter a lot and it was a part of the democratizing spirit of the age where numbers began to matter a lot more. Henry Clay used that very logic in sort of launching the anti-Jackson pro-bank campaign of 1832 to 1834, which as my colleagues and I have discovered plays a non-trivial role in the evolution of the American Whig party.


I thought that example really brings together how the petition was used as an alternative channel to express the popular will, because the age of Jackson is always considered very much a democratizing age. But there’s a problem with elections which is that they can become very plebiscitary unless there’s some channel for the people to communicate back with that leader. And I found it really surprising that it was Henry Clay, who I don’t think of as being just a radical voice of democracy during that time. It’s just not what I think about when I think of Henry Clay. But you make a strong case that petitions had a role alongside elections. There’s a passage in your book where you write, “Petitions complemented elections and parties in North American democratization, but also did things that elections and parties could not.”


Right. Just as you identified there is this aspect of elections that because we hand over power to the winner of them, most of the elections we have in American history are small r Republican or representative elections. We elect those who do some degree of policy-making. They make the laws. In some states we elect our bureaucrats. In the United States, we elect our executive authorities. David Stasavage at NYU has in his book on democracy, talked about the episodic nature of elections. And elections are absolutely important, absolutely central, but they only happen every once in a while. That was even the case in the revolutionary period and in the early American Republic when some, office holders were elected annually, like some governors under some state constitutions, there was an election every year. But that is not an everyday communication of the popular will.

And so, one thing that petitions do, that elections cannot, is kind of engage in an everyday degree of dialogue between citizen and office holder. But in terms of complementarity, I think it was really important. So if you’re trying to build a new party or if you’re trying to set an agenda for an upcoming election or for an upcoming session of Congress, it’s difficult to crack the chicken and the egg problem with elections alone. You’ve got to have something that draws people to your banner, your platform. And often, it was through petitions that that was built.

So, one example again, is the Whig party where as I argue, it’s not so much that I think the Whig party was built on a defense of the bank. I mean, that was part of it, but Clay clearly figures out in his battle with Jackson 1832 to 1834 that the people aren’t as much concerned about the bank as they are concerned about Jackson’s usurpation of power. This was a time still when presidential power was not trusted, when people more likely trusted their state legislatures, and they trusted Congress as a local representative. Alan Taylor’s new book, American Republics, makes this point. People’s political attachments were much more local.

But one of the things that happens is that they begin to look for new issues and what Clay realizes that the National Republican organization and its coalition just simply won’t do. And so, they seize on this petitioning campaign and it’s about Secretary Roger Taney, the Taney of Dred Scott. He begins removing the deposits from the national bank without authorization. The bank isn’t done yet. It would expire in 1836, but Taney begins without congressional authorization to remove the deposits. And he does so at Jackson’s direction.

And that, they think, is an issue on which they can begin to assemble a coalition. And what we show, my colleague Benjamin Schneer and I, but also in the book, we show that where these early, very early, pre-existence of Whig party petition signatures are arising, do a very good job of predicting not only where the Whigs get votes decades later, but also, the strength of state parties.

The other case, I would say, is the emergence of antislavery. The second party system, the Democrats and the Whigs, was in many respects built upon a tacit agreement that slavery would be ignored and that the major political battles would be fought over things like the tariff, infrastructure plans like Clay’s American Plan, questions of executive power and things like that. There were pro-slavery Whigs as we know, there were anti-slavery Democrats. And so, what happened in the building of things like first, the Liberty Party, then the Free Soil Party, later on the Republican Party, was the building of an anti-slavery opposition. And that was tricky, because the early anti-slavery activists such as Garrison and others were considered to be quacks. They were considered to be radicals.

But what Garrison figured out, and what Angelina Grimké figured out, and what many black leaders of the anti-slavery movement figured out is the petitions could be used to knit together alliances. Literally alliances on paper where radicals and conservatives, people who were not Garrisonians, they didn’t want immediate uncompensated emancipation with full political and economic rights for freedman, but nonetheless distrusted slavery, that they could end up signing the same petitions. And that’s why actually a lot of those early anti-slavery petitions are pretty moderate. They’re asking Congress to basically do away with slavery in the District of Columbia. Now that’s radical for southerners, but it’s moderate compared to most of what Garrison, David Walker, Maria Stewart, black abolitionists are really calling for, but the reason is in part to assemble that coalition.

And then, as we know, Congress gags those petitions. That leads to the biggest outpouring of petition in American congressional history. And that outpouring is remarkably predictive of where Free Soil and Liberty Party organization, as well as antislavery chapter organizations, emerge in the following 10 years. And that of course helps build the basis for the Republican party.


Let’s take a step back. You mentioned that the petitions are gagged, and I remember this because of your book, but something that you describe in your history of petitions is that the petitions were actually read at Congress and it took up a substantial part of the day. So, it’s not simply that these abolitionists are writing these petitions and then they go into a box where a bureaucrat sorts through them and hands out a select few to the president. We’re talking about stuff that the legislators are almost required to listen to or are being put into the actual register of the Congress. Can you explain a little bit about how that worked and the history behind it?


Yeah. My colleague, Maggie Blackhawk, has this great metaphor in one of her articles on the idea of the right to petition as almost akin to standing before a court. Even if the issue did not affect you in particular, you could petition on behalf of others. And so, as a citizen, as a subject of rule including for noncitizens having that standing, which meant again that a response at some level was expected. And it’s not that Congress had never tabled a petition before. Well over a thousand times had Congress initially tabled a petition.

What that gag did in ways that was so powerful and so shocking to many Americans was it kind of altered the time and space of legislative supplication. It said from here and this point forward any slavery related petition pro-slavery, anti-slavery shall not be given the customary reading on the floor. Shall not be referred to a committee or an ad hoc committee or some someplace where a report can be created and a response can be drawn up. And so, it was a commitment towards the future and it was issue specific. And it was that that led to this explosion of anti-slavery petitioning. And one of the things I show is that men in particular are much more likely to sign anti- gag rule petitions in the several years that follow.

And when they begin to send these petitions in and then Congress gags them suddenly a lot of people open their eyes and say, ‘Oh, maybe those abolitionists aren’t so crazy after all. Maybe they have a point. Maybe these people really are evil. Maybe these people really are bent on a kind of tyranny because if they’re going to interfere with the right to petition…’   Not so much in the constitutional sense, but that the idea of petition and response was sacred. It was sacrosanct. It was holy. And so, it was that ethic that hadn’t been violated and that led to such outrage.


Now Dan, I get the impression though, that it’s rare for petitions to be read on the floor of Congress today. It’s not as institutionalized as it used to be.  How does that change the approach that legislators might have when they’re constantly hearing these petitions from their constituents, and even from other people’s constituents, and getting these points of view that people feel very strongly about obviously put in front of them on a regular basis. How does that change the legislative process?


I think it changes it massively. So, let’s contrast two legislative days or legislative months. One would be, say any time from roughly the 1820s onwards, when these petition days become much more institutionalized. You go to Congress and you spend the first month of the session reading people’s petitions. You’re there at some level not as a Whig or a Democrat or a National Republican or a Republican. You’re there as a listener, as an office holder, listening to these petitions being read on the floor.

And you know that in your work as a member of a committee or as a member of the legislature, sometimes an ad hoc committee, that you’re not simply going to listen to these. In many cases the speaker or the clerk, the committee of the whole, is going to assign these petitions to you as a member, perhaps as a committee member, to work on. You’re going to have to, you know, spend more time with these things. And then you are going to occasion hearings. You are going to write up a report in response to, not every petition, but many of them. And in many cases, you’re going to have a debate about these petitions. The agenda for debate is in part going to be set from without.

Now contrast that to today where the expenditure of time for a member is, as we know, heavily based upon the pursuit of funds. The first vote that any Congress takes is the election of a speaker, for the house obviously, and then it’s a matter really of partisan governance. We do not have petition days. We create a system whereby most of these kinds of complaints are ferried to bureaus, to the administrative state or we set up mechanisms of courts for them. And so, at some level, the contemporary replacement for these is the opinion poll, which is another way for legislators to gain information on what their communities think. The notice and comment process of rulemaking or the process of taking a petition to an administrative agency, which still happens, and then, finally, the lawsuit, the tort. And those are all important mechanisms.

We can’t recreate the 19th century, you know, in any form of purity any more than we should celebrate or recreate travel by horse. It’s just a different world. And yet I think we can also reflect as we should on things that have been lost. So, what would it look like if every Congress started with a set of petition days? What would it look like, if we relied less upon partisan politics for agenda setting? Parties are an inescapable aspect of modern reality. But it’s possible. I think for a partisan democracy to become too efficient at some level, reducing the people’s will and the collective agenda to the party that won a majority of seats in Congress or that won the presidency in the last election.

We need the parties. We obviously need the elections. But in terms of this kind of non-episodic, quotidian technology of communication, not just of dialogue among citizens, but between citizens and office holders. That seems to me to be absolutely essential.


now, during the time period that you’re studying, a lot of people don’t have the right to vote. Women don’t have the right to vote. Most African-Americans don’t have the right to vote during this period. How did the disenfranchised use the petition differently than the enfranchised public?


Well, let me focus first on the similarities, because, you know, a big part of what I call the democratization by petition is what I call the democracy of agendas and also organizational democracy or associational democracy. And so like Henry Clay and the Whigs, Native Americans petitioned as much or more than any population in the period that I write about. And they do so under extreme duress. They’re being massively dispossessed by, not just the American government, but by the Mexican Republic, by the Canadian government. But they turned to the petition. Now in part they turned to the petition, because other forms of diplomacy and frankly of military resistance are not as available to them. But they also turned to the petition as strategically and as successfully as any other population, again, especially considering the extreme disadvantages under which they operated to build alliances.

What you start seeing with the anti-removal campaigns and the Seneca in the 1830s and 1840s, the same with the Cherokee, with different Canadian first nations, with different pueblos in New Mexico, they begin to attract non-indigenous allies to their cause. And in some cases they’re signing either different petitions or the same petitions to protest removal or to protest incursions upon their land, upon their spaces. Free black petitioners in the British West Indies or free black petitioners pushing for personal liberty laws in the North, or even black petitioners pushing for the regulation or abolition of slavery. Again, they successfully court many white allies in part through the petition process. So, in part you’re building alliances.

And so, the idea of building a coalition without the vote actually is possible. Now it’s crucial though, and I think here’s where the coevolution of elections and parties matters, in part many indigenous Americans, women, African-Americans are courting the alliances of people who do have voting rights. The other thing is that the ability of a petition to set a legislative agenda in part, because it required a response. So, we know that over half of the bills passed by Virginia’s late colonial House of Burgesses started as petitions. Across the centuries of time and leagues of space that petitions shaped gubernatorial, bureaucratic, ministerial, and legislative agendas.

And what that suggests is elections are again necessary, but insufficient for kind of a full democracy because elections simply put a majoritarian legitimated office holder into power. And, yes, there are reelection incentives and a range of other things, but the ability to shape and reshape agendas through this was a really important work of the disenfranchised. And as I suggest there’s another aspect. I mean, what we traditionally refer to as democratization, extension of suffrage rights, extension of civil rights, the creation of those parties, well, those didn’t happen without lots of mobilization from people who wanted those rights.

So, free blacks petitioning for voting rights happens a lot. In some cases, unsuccessfully, as when Pennsylvania removes free blacks from its electorate, but in some cases, successfully. Free blacks successfully petitioned for the laws that end up being used by the Massachusetts Supreme Court to abolish slavery in the state. Women successfully petitioned in a few cases for laws that end the doctrine of coverture that allow married women to have separable property rights. Native Americans petitioned successfully in some cases for the creation of reserves.

In one case that I think is quite dramatic, the Seneca from 1839 to 1842, they lose all their reservations in Western New York under a fraudulent treaty. And it’s by petitioning, as much as by elections, because they are a very tiny minority of New York’s voters, including in the west. But they get Quakers and a number of other religious allies and they do that by petitioning and they are able to reverse that treaty and in the 1830s and 1840s that’s a pretty rare if not unheard of outcome, but it happens in part through this more democratized petitioning.


So Dan, your book’s called Democracy by Petition. We’ve already discussed about how petitions evolved as the country – although that’s even an understatement, because you’re talking about the entire continent of North America really – is undergoing an evolution, a democratic evolution. So did the evolution of the petition create a more democratic culture or was it a consequence of democracy’s development?


I don’t want to punt the question, but the true answer is both. There was an egalitarian set of forces that were greatly energized by the American revolution, the French revolution, and others that were inspiration for Jeffersonian Republicans, for a Jacksonian democratic style, for labor organizers who also used petitions very effectively to ally with other producers. All of these very important developments relied at some level on what was small D democratic about our culture. And yet, so many of those egalitarian notions were expressed through petitioning during the Revolution during the antislavery activism of the pre-revolutionary period, say 1767 to 1775, during the heyday of the Democratic-Republican societies, during Washington’s and Adam’s administrations during sort of this producer based explosion of  labor identity that historians like Sean Wilentz or historians like Alan Greer have described for the United States and Canada during this period.

And what’s democratic and more and more democratic about the American Republic is this increasing emphasis upon equality such as one sees, for instance, in the 14th amendment, but which one sees also in the inspiration that Americans take from the French revolution, which Jefferson did. And of course, the Declaration of Independenceand in so many other sources. And my colleague at Harvard history, James Kloppenberg in his remarkable book Toward Democracy talks about that. The centrality of equality as a fundamental tenant. And petitions have that as much notional equality or a certain kind of notional equality that elections had never had. Elections were based on those who were Lords in some cases, who were gentry in other cases. The petition was much more open to other voices and so, the petition had always had this democratic potentiality, but it was deeply, deeply transformed by these.

And so, I don’t think the story can be told as, ‘Well, traditional petitioning democratized America,’ or ‘Our Jacksonian culture democratized petitioning.’ I think there was kind of a co-evolution of the two.


Now I found your book really fascinating to me, because I saw lots of parallels in things that we think of as very sophisticated modern forms of democratic theory. I read a lot about deliberative democracy. I have brought in a lot of people and I found your book parallels a lot of these ideas that we see today in deliberative democracy. But at the same time, they don’t ever mention the word petition or incorporate petitions into a lot of their work.  So Dan, what can contemporary politics, both political theory and political activism, learn from this era of petition politics?


Yeah. Let’s start with political theory. Political philosophers, and I started graduate school as a political philosopher. I’ve learned so much from people like Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson on deliberative democracy, Jane Mansbridge on recursive representation, people like Nadia Urbinati, who I think her book on Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy was really influential in my thinking. And so, I’m in debt, as we all are, to people who’d begun thinking about what democracy is and what it really amounts to as well as people who would argue for a small r Republican model like Philip Pettit and others. At the same time, I do think there’s been this thing, both visible and invisible, that’s been with us all along that needs to be brought into the fabric. And I don’t think this book fully does it.

I hope it starts a conversation about that, but all of these democracies have evolved and they’ve evolved with the institutions that we talk about: elections, parties, basic protections for civil rights, maybe a court system. All the things that modern theorists of democracy talk about and they’ve evolved alongside a much more ancient institution, petitioning, which itself is heterogeneous but with some common properties that was there all along. I think what we need are sort of a new generation of thinkers and for that matter citizens, to begin to think about what are these nonelectoral, non-constitutional and nonjuridical institutions and practices that we need to reinvent, that we need to adapt. Maybe they are aspects of social movements. Maybe they are aspects of political associations that not only get citizens engaged, but again reestablish that dialogue between subject and office holders, citizen, and ruler, if you will.

But also establish that democracy of agendas, the democracy of organizations and what I call again, cultural democracy that allow people to express themselves as equals.  But again, as I mentioned, also in the recent Boston Review essay, does so in a way that promotes deliberation, promotes rhetoric, respectful disagreement, and not simply a massive act of  negation of other people’s identities and arguments.


Well, thank you so much for writing your book, Dan. I place it alongside a lot of the really great books on democracy that are integrating history and theory to really help explain a lot of stuff. You mentioned David Stasavage’s book. I also think of Sherry Berman’s book. And what I see that’s in common with all of your work is that it looks at history to try to understand and unpack how democracy has evolved to be able to help us understand better democracy today. So, it’s a work for not just history buffs, but people who are just interested in learning more about democracy itself. It’s a fascinating read.


Thank you very much, Justin. It’s been a pleasure to talk about these things with you, and I hope it leads to further conversations, yours and mine, and our students.

Key Links

Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870 by Daniel Carpenter

The Menthol Cigarette Ban Shows There Is No Democracy Without Petitions,” by Daniel Carpenter, Boston Review

Robust Claims of Vast Lawlessness” from Lapham’s Quarterly by Daniel Carpenter

Related Content

Can America Preserve Democracy without Retreating from it? Robert C. Lieberman on the Four Threats

Derek W. Black Says Public Education Represents the Idea of America… Not its Reality

More from the Podcast

More Information

Democracy Group

Apes of the State created all Music

Out of Order from the German Marshall Fund

Email the show at democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox

100 Books on Democracy

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: