Amendment I (Petition and Assembly)

[Volume 5, Page 207]

Document 22

Senate, Reception of Abolition Petitions

1836Elliot 4:597--98

Mr. Buchanan. Although the Constitution, as it came from the hands of its framers, gave to Congress no power to touch the right of petition, yet some of the states to whom it was submitted for ratification, apprehending that the time might arrive when Congress would be disposed to act like the British Parliament, (in Charles II.'s time,) expressly withdrew the subject from our control. Not satisfied with the fact, that no power over it had been granted by the Constitution, they determined to prohibit us, in express terms, from ever exercising such a power.

The proposition [the right of petition] is almost too plain for argument, that, if the people have a constitutional right to petition, a corresponding duty is imposed upon us to receive their petitions. From the very nature of things, rights and duties are reciprocal. The human mind cannot conceive of the one without the other. They are relative terms. If the people have a right to command, it is the duty of their servants to obey. If I have a right to a sum of money, it is the duty of my debtor to pay it to me. [Volume 5, Page 208] If the people have a right to petition their representatives, it is our duty to receive their petition.

This question was solemnly determined by the Senate more than thirty years ago. Neither before nor since that time, so far as I can learn, has the general right of petition ever been called in question; until the motion now under consideration was made by the senator from South Carolina.

Mr. King, (of Georgia.) Congress, under this article, [the first amendment] can pass no law to "abridge" the right of the people to petition the government. A modern commentator on the Constitution, of some note and much ability, in noticing this part of the article, dismissed it with the remark, that it was totally unnecessary. This is obvious to every one who will consider for a moment the relation between a free people and the government of their own choice. The privilege belonged (Mr. K. said) to the form of government--was united with it, and inseparable from it. It as clearly belonged to the people, on the formation of the government, as did the right to use the English language without any constitutional provision for that purpose; and, said Mr. K., if gentlemen will only look at the Constitution, and not evade it, they will see that the right was not ACQUIRED by the Constitution, but only SECURED by it. The right, as a preëxisting one, was expressly recognized by the language of the Constitution itself. What was the language applicable to the question before the Senate? It prevented Congress from passing any law "abridging the right of the people to petition," &c.

The right belonged to the people as inseparably incident to their form of government; was acknowledged to exist by the language of the Constitution; and was guardedly secured by the provisions of that instrument.

Mr. Calhoun. The first amended article of the Constitution, which provides that Congress shall pass no law to prevent the people from peaceably assembling and petitioning for a redress of grievances, was clearly intended to prescribe the limits within which the right might be exercised. It is not pretended that to refuse to receive petitions, touches, in the slightest degree, on these limits. To suppose that the framers of the Constitution--no, not the framers, but those jealous patriots who were not satisfied with that instrument as it came from the hands of the framers, and who proposed this very provision to guard what they considered a sacred right--performed their task so bunglingly as to omit any essential guard, would be to do great injustice to the memory of those stern and sagacious men.

If the Constitution makes it our duty to receive, we should have no discretion left to reject, as the motion presupposes. Our rules of proceeding must accord with the Constitution. Thus, in the case of revenue bills, which, by the Constitution, must originate in the other house, it would be out of order to introduce them here; and it has accordingly been so decided. For like reasons, if we are bound to receive petitions, the present motion would be out of order; and, if such should be your opinion, it is your duty, as the presiding officer, to call me to order, and to arrest all further discussion on the question of reception.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 5, Amendment I (Petition and Assembly), Document 22
The University of Chicago Press

Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols. 2d ed. 1888. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.