Birth of the Nation: The First Federal Congress 1789-1791
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    Petitioning the Federal Government
View of West Point,
New York by J. Smillie from original etching by L'Enfant
(Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

"We the People of the United States, in Order to
. . . establish Justice, . . . promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty . . . ."


Americans, many of whom had unsuccessfully petitioned the Confederation Congress, flooded the First Congress with more than six hundred petitions. In 1791 Sen. Paine Wingate wrote President Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire that "We have had a host of private petitioners before Congress, who if they were all to be gratifyed would nearly swallow up the whole revenue." (Feb. 6, 1791, Dartmouth College Library) The majority were Revolutionary War soldiers requesting back pay or pensions. Other petitioners sought copyrights, patents, jobs, federal pay raises, compensation for revolutionary war services or losses, mitigation of federal fines, exemption from military service, and investigations of federal elections. Residents of several towns asked Congress to adopt legislation to encourage domestic manufacturing, or to select their area as the capital of the United States. At first, most petitions were tabled, although a few were referred to select committees. In the second and third sessions, Congress began almost routinely to refer most petitions to the secretaries of the executive departments for reports. Often citing statutes of limitations, secretaries generally reported against the claims of petitioners. Occasionally private bills were passed to answer the prayers of petitioners. Fewer than ten of these actually became law. More often, claims were resolved by acts such as those on copyrights and patents, which treated the subject of the petition as a class rather than an individual matter.


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