The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," a practice rooted in colonial government. Long before the ratification of the Constitution, British subjects in the colonies petitioned local assemblies—and sometimes the King of England himself—to address concerns. Eager to enhance legitimacy and expand jurisdiction, colonial governments valued this correspondence and usually responded promptly to petitioners' requests for assistance. Following ratification of the Constitution, the new federal Congress convened in New York City in the spring of 1789 and continued the practice of hearing petitioners' claims. Just 10 days after the Senate achieved its first quorum for business, senators heard a petition from David Ramsey asking for the exclusive right to sell his book, History of the American Revolution. As petitions from other citizens arrived, Congress ensured the practice would continue by including the right to petition in the First Amendment.
Whether demanding attention for a personal claim like Ramsey's, or requesting legislative action on behalf of a group of citizens, the act of petitioning provides individuals, even the disenfranchised, with a "voice" in government. For decades after the nation's founding, the Senate received a steady stream of petitions, but the flow became a flood in the 1830s when abolitionists inundated Congress with antislavery petitions. Inspired by the abolitionists, suffragists also began to petition Congress for a constitutional amendment extending to women the right to vote. It took more than 40 years of protesting and politicking—and thousands of petitions—but in 1919 suffragists finally convinced the Senate to pass this landmark legislation, sending it on the road to ratification.
Below is a sample of petitions received by the Senate during the long congressional debate over woman suffrage.