Research on the Petition and Republican Government

Daniel Carpenter, Department of Government, Harvard University

I have recently begun a very exploratory study of petitioning in the early U.S. republic. Right now I'm just laying the groundwork for a project that may become much larger.

I am interested in many questions regarding early American petitions, such as why they flourished when they were so often ignored, whether they represented a distinct literary and rhetorical form, whether (and under what historical conditions) they were precursors to wider political mobilization, how they were used strategically by political organizers, and others. My running hypothesis (which stands as little more than a vague conjecture right now) is that petitions had as much to do with the evolution of republican (representative) government in the West as did elections. One reason that the early U.S. republic makes for a good case study in this respect is that scholars can study the use, meaning and influence of petitions before and after the extension of suffrage to lower social classes and before and after the rise of the mass parties of the Jacksonian period.

Pipe dreaming for a moment, I'm thinking of a much larger study (to be carried out over the long-term) on the transformation of petitioning from early modern Europe to the twentieth-century United States and perhaps India and Latin America. The idea would be trace the meaning and use of petitions over these periods and across polities. For the short term, I am now engaged in an effort to collect, document and catalog all slavery-related petitions from the 25th Congress (1837-1838) that were sent to the House of Representatives and which are still housed in the National Archives in Washington D.C. Co-conspirators for this project -- who bear no blame whatsoever for the crazy notions I propound here and elsewhere about petitions -- are Charles Stewart III of MIT and Colin Moore of Harvard University.

For support of this project, I gratefully acknowledge a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship and a residential fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.



"The Petition as a Tool of Recruitment: Evidence from the Abolitionists' Congressional Campaign."

  •  presented at the Yale Conference on Crafting and Operating Institutions, April 2003
  • presented at the Stanford University American Empirical Seminar (AES) (November 2003)
  • presented at the Stanford GSB Organizations Workshop (January 2004)

"Mass Petitioning as Institutional Subversion: Evidence from the Antebellum U.S. Republic."