What’s in a petition? Dr Henry Miller discusses plans for a new research network.


Image: Mrs. Pankhurst carrying a petition from the Third Women’s Parliament to the Prime Minister, February 13, 1908.

Recent years have seen a huge surge of e-petitioning through websites such as www.change.org, the White House’s We the People website [https://petitions.whitehouse.gov] and https://petition.parliament.uk. E-petitioning has flourished in an age of falling election turnouts and declining political party membership, and citizens are increasing turning to it and other electronic forms of political participation. E-petitioning can be seen as the latest adaptation of an ancient practice. Petitioning was the most popular and accessible form of political engagement in pre-democratic societies and it is an exciting, emerging area of interdisciplinary research, attracting historians, political scientists, sociologists, literary and legal scholars, to name but a few. The richness, diversity and huge scale of petitioning make it an important and fascinating subject, with sources that can be analysed from a variety of different perspectives. Petitions are a universal form that transcend space and time, and the symposium aimed to encourage debate and dialogue across periods, disciplines and places.

In June this year, the University of Manchester held a ‘Transnational Cultures of Petitioning Symposium’ in order to bring together scholars considering the insights petitions offer for historians interested in political, social, and cultural developments across the world. The symposium focused on the relationship between petitioning and political mobilization, collective action, democratization and social change in the 1700-1914 period. Key themes included the role of petitioning in the mighty social movements of the period, and the place of petitioning in different societies, including France, the Netherlands, Spain, colonial India and America.

A range of interdisciplinary perspectives were brought to bear on the subject, including Daniel Carpenter’s (Harvard) spatial mapping of French, American and British petitions across two centuries. Benoît Agnés (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) showed how women in early 19th century France and Britain, used petitions to shape their own gender identities, while Robert Poole (Uclan) highlighted potentially revolutionary use of petitions by working-class radicals in early industrial England. The key role of petitions in anti-slavery was examined by Richard Huzzey (Liverpool) and Sami Pinabarsi (University of Manchester, Ph. D. candidate). Maartje Janse (Leiden) skillfully placed Dutch petitioning in a transnational context. The re-invention of petitioning in late Napoleonic Spain was the subject of Diego Palacios Cerezales’s (Stirling) fascinating paper. James Jaffe’s (Wisconsin-Whitewater) important study of the languages of petitioning in colonial India, particularly the quasi-legal appeals made to village courts, broadened the focus of the symposium beyond Europe and America.

The distinction between petitions and other forms of subscriptional communities involving signatures (e.g. oaths, charity subscription lists) was a key point made by Mark Knights (Warwick) and one of the important conceptual clarifications to emerge. A second key theme, particularly evident in David Zaret’s (Indiana) keynote, was the shift from pre or early modern forms of petitioning to the mass mobilization model of petitioning that emerged in Britain and the USA in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

We are now developing publication plans and research network proposal for this exciting new project. A preliminary step for the latter is a website listing scholars from around the globe, which is currently in development- see ‘The Humble Petitioners’ website here.I will also be giving a talk at the People’s History Museum in November on ‘The Power of Petitions: From the Chartists to E-Petitions’, which you can find more about and register to attend by clicking the link here. This will be part of a workshop offering members of the public an insight into how ordinary working people made their voices heard through petitions during periods when access the vote was extremely limited, from the Chartists to the Suffragettes.

So, if you would like to get involved and learn more about the project please join me at the People’s History Museum in November, and keep an eye out for future developments from our new research network!

Henry Miller

The symposium was supported by the Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, the Social History Society and the History Division, SALC, University of Manchester.

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