About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790–1870

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s virtual author lecture with Daniel Carpenter, author of Democracy by Petition.

Before we begin, though, I’d like to tell you about two upcoming programs you can view on our YouTube channel.

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On Thursday, May 20, at 11 a.m., we present the latest installment in our Young Learner’s Program—Meet Madam C. J. Walker. Actor and historian Daisy Century will portray Madam C. J. Walker: philanthropist, civil rights advocate, and America’s first female self-made millionaire. At the end of the program, A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, will answer questions.

And on Thursday, May 27, at noon, Jim Downey will tell us about his new book, Brainstorms and Mindfarts, a look at the brightest and most innovative American inventions along with the frivolous and utterly useless ones lost to history.

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The ability to petition the government and expect a resolution is a widely acknowledged practice in our society. The right to do so is spelled out in the Bill of Rights, in the First Amendment. Along with the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech and the press, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is made explicitly clear.

The National Archives holds large numbers of petitions of various sorts—to the President, to Congress, and to federal agencies. Our most recent exhibit, Rightfully Hers, contains several petitions calling for voting rights for women. The largest petition in our holdings is an 1893 appeal for a Department of Roads. That petition contains 150,000 signatures on papers attached end to end, and wound around two wooden spools. The entire structure weighs 600 pounds and stands seven feet tall.

Whether a petition is one page or several thousand, Americans have energetically used this right to ask for help.

In Democracy by Petition, Daniel Carpenter reveals the core role of the petition in the development of American democracy.

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Daniel Carpenter is Allie S. Freed Professor of Government at Harvard University and the author of the prizewinning books Reputation and Power and The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy. At Harvard, he led the creation of the Digital Archive of Antislavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions and the Digital Archive of Native American Petitions.

He is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, and Fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. His articles have appeared in the American Political Science Review, Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of the American Medical Association, among other venues, and his public writings have appeared in the New York Times, Le Monde, the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and other outlets.

Now let’s hear from Daniel Carpenter. Thank you for joining us today.