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