The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday comes from the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting … the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This provision of the Constitution guarantees that the people can petition their government without worrying about the government causing problems for them.
W. Cleon Skousen wrote: “In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson denounced in the strongest possible terms the refusal of the king to give respectful consideration to the petitions of the people. He wrote:
“`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….’
“Of course, governments throughout the ages have resented petitions for the simple reason that they usually itemize the sins of government and the dereliction of administration by government offices. Nevertheless, this is the safety valve by which governments survive. Unless administrators are sensitive to the grievances of the people, the hostility of rebellious forces can reach a boiling temperature. King George III learned this too late. So did Louis XVI of France. Constant communications between the government and its people is fundamental to an efficient administration.” (See The Making of America – The substance and Meaning of the Constitution, pp. 689-690.)
Skousen further explained “the five ways to petition the government for a `redress of grievances’”: 1) formal petition, 2) personal letter, 3) personal contact, 4) paid lobbyist, and 5) public demonstration.
David Bernstein of The Heritage Foundation explained: “The right to petition only guarantees that citizens can communicate with the sovereign through petitions. It does not guarantee that the sovereign will respond in any particular way, or indeed, at all. Parliament and colonial legislatures nevertheless felt obligated to respond to every petition, because those bodies had judicial as well as legislative functions. In the American constitutional scheme, judicial power rests solely in the judicial branch, and the judiciary is the only branch of government that is always obligated to consider and respond to petitions submitted to it….
“Congress initially took petitions very seriously, following the tradition of its colonial forebears….
“The right to petition, along with the right to peaceable assembly, became less important as modern democratic politics gradually replaced petitioning and public protests as the primary means for constituents to express their views to their representatives. Today, Congress treats most petitions in a pro forma way. A Representative may present a petition on behalf of a private party to the Clerk of the House, who enters it in the Journal.
“Although the right to petition is somewhat anachronistic in modern times and has largely been subsumed in the right to freedom of speech, it continues to have some independent weight….” (See The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, pp. 317-318.)