There have been few serious controversies relating to the petition clause of the 1st Amendment, but one noteworthy situation arose even before the Bill of Rights was adopted by the states. In 1790, the First Congress began receiving numerous petitions or “Memorials.” These came mostly from Quakers protesting slavery, including one signed by Benjamin Franklin.
Members of Congress from the Deep South were outraged. Michael Stone of Maryland argued that the Quakers had no exclusive interest in the matter—it was of general concern—and therefore the petition ought to merely lie on the table as information. Thomas Tucker of South Carolina thought the House “ought to dismiss it without further notice,” because Congress had no authority to do what was asked of them. Cooler heads reminded the House that, while they may not act in any way contrary to the Constitution, no topic was precluded from their discussions. Madison pointed out that some of the actions the petitioners sought fell within the scope of Congress’ powers, and it was incumbent upon them to consider the matter seriously. In the end, these memorials were referred to a committee, which then issued a very noncommittal response to them.
In 1836 the House decided that all petitions related to slavery would be tabled “and that no further action whatever be had thereon.” During this controversy, Mr. Cushing of Massachusetts objected to the House’s proposed suppression of petitions, and held up Madison’s dispassionate review of them as the shining example of how they should be received. Nevertheless, Congress’ reception of such inflammatory petitions became increasingly more high-handed, and in 1840, Congress simply declared that no abolitionist petitions “shall be received by this House, or entertained in any way whatever.” John Quincy Adams managed to get this law repealed in 1844.
Today, petitions to Congress do not need to be suppressed by law—they are generally lost amidst competing claims for a Representative’s attention. This reminds us that, while we have a right to petition the government, such a petition does not guarantee government action.