First Amendment lesson plan: Petitioning the Government
Appropriate academic subjects
Suitable for classes in government, social studies, and civics.
The history and meaning of the First Amendment right to petition can be traced through several historical events:
Magna Carta, 1215. At the demand of feudal barons, King John of England set his seal on a document that stated a king was subject to the rule of law, that “free men” had certain rights, and that a king could be defied by his barons if he failed to respect those rights. The Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) represents an early form of petition in protest against grievances.
Petition of Right, 1628. The English Parliament complained in a petition to King Charles I that he had violated several laws. Issues at stake included taxation without Parliament’s consent, jailing people without cause, forcing subjects to house soldiers, and maintaining martial law in peacetime. In some of these demands we can see similarities to what American colonists would later demand.
Declaration of Independence, 1776. Not a petition but an announcement of separation from Great Britain, the famous document nonetheless noted after listing many tyrannical abuses that “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”
First Amendment to the Constitution, 1791. Guaranteed the right of the people to petition the government. The First Amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
John Quincy Adams’s antislavery petitions, 1837. Because Southern members of Congress objected to any questioning of the practice slavery, Congress passed a “gag rule” in 1836 to prevent debate on the topic. Adams, an abolitionist, said the rule violated the First Amendment. Insisting that anyone, slaves included, could petition Congress, and he persisted in presenting antislavery petitions until the rule was rescinded.
Women’s suffrage petitions, 1866. An early effort to establish women’s right to vote, these petitions to Congress for “universal suffrage” were signed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among other feminist leaders. It would take until 1920 for the right to be guaranteed by the 19th Amendment.
In older times, the use of petition has been emblematic of the struggle between absolute power and the people’s demands for justice. In the U.S., the right to petition the government to correct a wrong or achieve a goal is fundamental to the workings of a democratic republic.
Although the act of petitioning the government does not guarantee results, it is the basis of a democracy in action. The right to petition is seen in voting, in asking members of Congress to support or oppose legislation, and in lobbying. The petition right is also used by anyone who gets excited by a cause or is upset by a perceived wrong and seeks to garner others’ help in doing something about it.
There is no “required form” for a petition. Petition can take many forms, and can be presented at the national, state, and local levels.
One class period.
Discuss various uses of petition in history, and ask students for examples of how petition can be used today. Have students visit Change.org, the Petition Site, and any other sites they can find where people can create and sign petitions.
As homework, ask students to identify national, state, or local issues they care about, using newspapers and news websites. Assign them to draft petitions about those issues, paying close attention to clarity in expressing what actions they would want government to take in response.
An advanced alternative exercise would be to choose a Supreme Court case about petition from the resource below and discuss it.
Critique and grade students’ petitions on clarity of writing and grasp of the issues involved. Consider sending petitions to local government representatives’ offices. Perhaps delegate a group to gather contact information for these officials.
Materials and readings
Resource: Magna Carta – Britannica.com
Resource: Petition of Right – Britannica.com
Resource: Declaration of Independence – Bill of Rights Institute
Resource: John Quincy Adams’s antislavery petitions – Newseum
Resource: Universal-suffrage petitions – National Archives
Reading: Freedom of Assembly and Petition – Constitution Center
Reading: "The Right to Petition relates to all First Amendment freedoms" – Pueblo Chieftain
Resource: Freedom of petition Supreme Court cases – Bill of Rights Institute