Will You Sign This Petition?

  Beginning - Advanced
  U.S. History, World History

When people are asked to recite the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment, they often forget the right of petition. Yet this right could arguably be credited with providing the foundation for all other First Amendment rights.

The story begins in 1215 at a place called Runnymede in England, where the English barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, the first document to put limits on the king’s power. While the document itself did not establish the right to petition, the very act of challenging the king — whose belief in his divine right to rule was absolute — demonstrated the human desire to rectify wrongs by voicing grievances.

More than 500 years later, American colonists raised their voices against an unjust king and against Parliament when King George III and Britain’s ruling body ignored their petitions. The colonists told the world why they were rebelling against the monarch in the Declaration of Independence: “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.”

In this lesson, students will research the backgrounds of three English documents whose influence is evident in the First Amendment and in American society today. Students will prepare timelines and make presentations to their classmates.

Key Concepts

  • The precedent for the right to petition for a redress of grievances originated in three English documents: the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and the Bill of Rights (Declaration of Rights).

  • Individuals, citizens’ groups and corporations may request remedy or complain to and about their government without fear of punishment.

  • Securing liberty and individual rights requires enforceable legal limits on all government power.

First Principles
Go to this curriculum’s First Principles. The First Principles document was developed to explain in practical, everyday terms just what the First Amendment means.

Read the explanations of the principles listed below. They have special relevance to the activities in this lesson.

  • The First Amendment affirms the freedom of the individual.

  • Free expression is the foundation — the cornerstone — of democracy.

First Moments
Share this scene with students.

“Will you sign this petition?” asks a pair of high school seniors. They approach commuters and tourists at a Washington, D.C., Metro stop.

As a group pauses to hear more, one of the students — who is taking a U.S. Government class — explains: “People who live here are serving in their country’s military, but their government doesn’t give them representation in forming policies.”

Her partner adds, “The citizens of this jurisdiction are paying over $2 billion in federal taxes every year, but they don’t have a voting representative in Congress. These citizens weren’t allowed to vote for president until 1964.”

Nearby, another pair of students distributes pamphlets telling where to purchase D.C. license plates bearing the slogan “Taxation Without Representation.” They urge people to be true patriots.

“Won’t you support these taxpayers?” the first student asks. “This is taxation without representation. Will you sign this petition to give D.C. the vote?”

Ask students if they think the petition should be signed. What else do they need to know before they can make an informed decision?

Remind students of the Stamp Act that the British Parliament imposed on American colonists for the purpose of “defending, protecting and securing the colonies.” Resistance to this measure spread throughout the 13 colonies: Sons of Liberty formed, stamps were destroyed and in October 1765 a congress was held in New York, the first intercolonial meeting for an American initiative.

Have students read the arguments for and against D.C. voting rights presented on the D.C. Vote website. Discuss the information provided. What other arguments for or against the proposal that D.C. residents receive full voting representation in Congress can students add?

See which petition students would sign. Download Which Petition Would You Sign? for use in the classroom.


  1. Define the terms “petition,” “redress” and “grievances.” When students ask for signatures on a petition, when a lobbyist voices the wishes of a client and when Native Americans seek fishing rights, all are seeking change. They are telling government officials of their dissatisfaction without fear of reprisal or imprisonment because the First Amendment guarantees that citizens may petition the government for a redress of grievances. Ask students for examples of citizens using the right to petition for a redress of grievances.

  2. After students have discussed the importance of petition to today’s American citizens, divide the class into three groups. Assign each group a different document to research: Magna Carta (1215), Petition of Right (1628) and the Bill of Rights, England (1689). Each group is to create a multiple-tier timeline that contains reflections of life in the assigned period (which could include references to art, literature, technology and industry); significant personalities; and important social, political and economic circumstances that produced the document. Give each group its document Group Assignment Sheet.

  3. All members of each group should participate in oral presentation of the timelines to the class.

  4. Give each student a copy of the Petition Timeline. Ask each group to share what influences their group’s document had on the Declaration of Independence, First Amendment and Bill of Rights. Be sure to summarize parallels to be made between the three English documents and the American First Amendment’s protection of rights, including the right to petition for a redress of grievances. These may include:

    • In 1215 the Magna Carta stated that its rights “protected all the free men of our kingdom.” In 1776, the Declaration of Independence stated, “All men are created equal.” In both cases, it took centuries for the rights to apply to all the people.

    • The evolution from an all-powerful government to a government existing to protect the people’s rights took centuries to accomplish.

        In 1215 King John swore he would break every law he had just signed and went on a rampage of revenge for a year until he died. According to his epitaph, he was “a knight without truth, a king without justice, a Christian without faith.”

        In 1649 when Parliament found King Charles I guilty of treason, they sentenced him to death as a “tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of the nation.”

        At the conclusion of the listing of grievances in the Declaration of Independence, the 13 colonies agreed: “Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be ruler of a free people.”

    • The Petition of Right in 1628 prohibited compulsory loans or taxes imposed by the king “without the consent by act of Parliament.” This “was an early formulation of the principle of ‘taxation without representation,’ which would be invoked resoundingly a century and a half later by the American colonies to protest the Stamp Act,” according to Ira Glasser, author of Visions of Liberty: The Bill of Rights for All Americans.


  1. Research one of the Supreme Court cases that relate to the right of petition (see Petition Timeline.) In the student’s written review of the case, ask that the influence of earlier documents and cases in the Court’s ruling be included.

  2. Download the 2009 State of the First Amendment report and go to Chapter 4: Freedom of Assembly and Petition. Discuss the variety of civic endeavors — “boycotts, protests, marches, and demonstrations; lobbying; freedom of association; access to information” — that are indicated as examples of freedom of assembly and petition. Note how petition for redress of grievances is closely associated with speech, press and assembly. Ask students to read their local newspaper and online news sites for examples of today’s citizens seeking redress of grievances.

  3. Lead students in brainstorming a variety of methods that people can use to petition the government for redress of grievances (e.g., testifying at a public hearing, writing letters to public officials, circulating formal petitions). Follow up by inviting a former elected official from the city council, the county commission or other local body to meet with the class. (A former official may find it easier to be candid with the class than an official who currently holds office.) If no such person is readily available, a staff person who actually screens calls and letters might be. The class and the official should discuss how elected officials decide whose petitions or requests get their attention first. Focus on how ordinary citizens can be most effective in getting attention and being taken seriously by elected officials.

On the Web

Magna Carta
American law and constitutional government grew out of the Magna Carta. Learn more and view the Magna Carta, on permanent loan from the Perot Foundation.

Magna Carta and Its American Legacy
An excellent online source, concisely addressing the influence of a group of barons gathered at Runnymede on American liberties hundreds of years later.

Medieval Sourcebook: Medieval Legal History
Online legal documents to explore the origins of English common law.

The Petition of Right (1628)
Online text of the document, “exhibited to his Majesty by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, concerning divers Rights and Liberties of the Subjects.”

The Declaration of Right (February, 1689) (Extracts)
Presented to Prince William and Princess Mary, indicting James II, declaring the rights of the citizens. After they signed the document, William & Mary of Orange were declared King and Queen Regnant of England.

English Bill of Rights (1689)
An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown.

The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School
Online text of documents that were the “roots of the Constitution.” These include the Magna Carta; Mayflower Compact, Nov. 11, 1620; The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England, May 19, 1643; and several state constitutions.

Constitution of the Confederate States of America
The document created by the Confederacy after the outbreak of the Civil War.

Timeline of Medieval Britain
Offers historical context for the creation of some of the documents discussed above.

Timeline of Reformation and Restoration Period
Offers historical context for the creation of some of the documents discussed above.

DC Vote
An organization dedicated to securing full democratic voting rights and Congressional representation for residents of the District of Columbia.  

National Standards
World History, Era 5 — Intensified Hemispheric Interactions 1000-1500 CE: Standard 20, Understands the redefinition of European society and culture from 1000 to 1300 CE.

Historical Understanding: Standard 1, Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns.

United States History, Era 2: Standard 4, Understands how political, religious, and social institutions emerged in the English colonies.