Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia


Your Humble Petitioner: Legislative Petitions Gave Voice to Virginians

On view February 7, 2022-November 19, 2022

Imagine having to explain to the House of Delegates why you want to divorce your spouse, or change your name, or take other actions that affect your life. Virginians had to do just that for nearly a century. Their stories can be found in the Library's Legislative Petitions Collection.

During the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Virginians submitted petitions to the General Assembly to bring local or personal issues to the attention of their legislators. The Library's collection of nearly 25,000 petitions reveals how Virginians communicated their concerns on a wide range of topics. To obtain legal permission to operate a ferry, maintain a tavern, or carry out many other activities, residents of the commonwealth were required to introduce a petition into the House of Delegates to begin the process of acceptance or rejection. The right to petition was not restricted by class, race, or sex. Your Humble Petitioner highlights petitions that involved deeply personal issues such as divorce and requests by emancipated Black people to remain in the commonwealth, offering a glimpse into the realities of 18th- and 19th-century life.

The right of citizens to petition their government is an ancient one, dating back indirectly to the Great Charter (Magna Carta) from 1215 and in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even today, citizens of Virginia exercise their right to petition their government.