As the primary catalyst for legislation in the commonwealth, petitions addressed public improvements, military claims, divorce, manumission of slaves, division of counties, incorporation of towns, religious freedom, and taxation, among other concerns. Between 1774 and 1865, members of the General Assembly reviewed petitions reporting that hogs were running loose through the streets of Smithfield; protesting that an Albemarle County woman's personal inheritance was sold to pay the debts of her drunken and runaway husband; complaining that two ex-sheriffs of Cumberland County had not been paid; and requesting freedom for William Beck, a slave who rendered "exemplary service" in the military.
Petitioning played a vital role in Virginia politics from the American Revolution to the Civil War. The right to petition was not restricted by class, race, or sex; as a result, women, free blacks, and slaves petitioned the General Assembly, although they were all denied the right to vote. Citizens were encouraged by their legislative representatives to send petitions to Richmond; in turn, the delegates gave each petition consideration and due procedure. These pleas from the people of Virginia serve as a vibrant register of popular opinion on matters both public and private.
Among the legislative petitions, subjects commonly addressed include internal improvements (such as canals or roads), the troubles that sheriffs encountered in collecting taxes, and county divisions. Petitions often sought legislative action, financial aid, and divorce. Petitions document requests for the emancipation of slaves, campaigns for the abolition of slavery, and complaints about the activities of free blacks. Religious petitions range from philosophical calls for religious freedom to proposals for lotteries to fund new church buildings. For historical researchers, the legislative petition collection provides insight into the daily life and social history of Virginia during the early republic.