Your Humble Petitioner Essay Contest

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Middle School Student Essay Contest
Read the winning essays

Petitions are a formal written request for action. They are often addressed to a body of government and are typically signed by multiple people who agree with the request. The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances was so significant that it was included in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.

Virginians have had the right to petition their government since the English settled at Jamestown. Their requests could be for public improvements, such as building a new road, or for private reasons, such as requesting a pension for military service. Any Virginian could submit a petition regardless of gender, race, or class. Learn more about the right to petition through resources at the Library of Virginia and Encyclopedia Virginia.

Contest Prompt

During and after the Revolutionary War, many men and women petitioned the General Assembly for assistance as a result of their experiences as a soldier or a civilian. Imagine you were a part of the Revolutionary War as a civilian, a soldier, or a spy. Who are you? Where are you? What is happening in the war? What happened to you and when? Why do you need help?

Address a petition of no more than 400 words to the General Assembly using the format outlined below. You are trying to convince the legislators in the General Assembly to help you, so make sure you use persuasive language. Petitioners sent their request to the General Assembly, where it would be referred to a committee whose members considered whether or not it should be approved or rejected, after which the Assembly would take final action.

Petitions follow a specific formula with a standard opening, the request, and a closing:

Opening:  A petition usually opened with a standardized greeting conveying courtesy and respect: “To the Honorable the Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Delegates of Virginia, the petition of _________ of the county of ________ humbly sheweth that….”

Text:  The body of the petition included a statement of the request or complaint (and often a proposal to remedy the situation), ranging in length from one paragraph to several pages. By explaining their case, petitioners hoped to convince the legislature of the validity of their pleas.

Gloss: The formulaic closing of most petitions (“And your petitioner as in duty bound shall ever pray, &c.,”) was abbreviated from the traditional English closing.

Winning Essays

Samuel Olagunju
Ni River Middle School

Petition for Emancipation of Paul Tayloe
To the Honorable Speaker and Gentleman of the House of Delegates of Virginia,
the petition of Captain James Conway of the county of Spotsylvania on the behalf of Paul Tayloe humbly sheweth that Paul Tayloe, a mulatto slave, currently the property of Robert Tayloe has been kept enslaved in defiance of the “Directing the Emancipation of Certain Slaves who have Served as Soldiers in this State” act passed in 1783.
Your petitioner had the honor to serve with Paul Tayloe in the third Virginia Regiment under the command of Colonel Gabriel Baytop for four years in the Revolution that freed America from British despotism. Tayloe was sent in the place of his master as a substitute. Although, at first serving under low presumptions, Tayloe established himself as dutiful, faithful and true; allowing him to serve as a spy and as an exemplary soldier. Fighting valiantly during the brutal winter of 1777 at Valley Forge and during the capture of Stoney Point, he was a crucial asset to the third Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army. At the end of the war, having served the full term of his enlistment, Paul Tayloe was sent back to his master Robert Tayloe to reside in a state of servitude, contrary to the principles of justice, despite the promise of freedom. Tayloe, whose efforts have helped contribute to the founding of American liberty and independence, should be able during peacetime to enjoy the blessings of freedom as a reward for their labors.
It is the plea of the petitioner that Paul Tayloe should be emancipated in accordance with to “Directing the Emancipation of Certain Slaves who have Served as Soldiers in this State” act as a reward for his grueling efforts on the battlefield and behind enemy lines, tirelessly fighting for our independence from the British; and begs that this petition be heard before the House of Delegates of Virginia on the behalf of the said slave.
And to your petitioner as in duty bound shall ever pray, &c.,
Captain James Conway

Vince Edwards
Independence Middle School

Petition of Rev. Vincent Gene Edwards, October 31, 1778, Montgomery County
To the Honourable the Speaker and gentlemen of the House of Delegates of Virginia, the petition of Vincent Edwards to the county of Montgomery, humbly sheweth:
That your petitioner on August 26, 1778 witnessed the burning of Woods River Church by British loyalists. The church, which also served as a school and meeting house, and its contents were destroyed.
We are but poor farmers and have no additional resources here save for our own sweat and fortitude. My heart grieves for our community. We are not sunshine patriots, but true servants of the Lord and the fight for liberty. I myself issued a call to arms to my congregation from the now charred remains of our very pulpit. I led military drills and trained young and old in the shadow of our church’s cross.
As our dear brother in liberty Mr. Thomas Paine has stated so eloquently, “What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly; ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its good.” It is not a stretch to say that were it not for our pastors and churches, our land’s fight against tyranny would be a futile one.
The Lord, in His infinite mercy, protected us from loss of life. But, I daresay, each of us grieves the loss of our church no less painfully than a fallen brother. In this instance, however, our spirits might be rallied, our cause revived, our community and country made stronger by your support. Gentlemen, we need funds to rebuild our church.
Therefore, I pray this honourable house will on consideration of the premises, give unto us such relief as in their justice and mercy shall seem right.

Honorable Mention Essay
Julia Hines
Lake Ridge Middle School

To the Honorable the Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Delegates of Virginia, the petition of Mary Feildson of the county of the United States of America humbly sheweth the war pension I received be increased to its promised amount.
I am a woman of twenty-eight and widowed. My husband fought in the revolutionary war for just over eleven months, but died three months before the wars end. The Continental Congress has already passed the act to offer pensions to widows and orphans. I have a right to the pension, but I have only received a quarter of what the Congress had promised. By law the pension should go to me. I ask the House of Delegates of Virginia to also consider the fact that I have four children and no way of providing for them.
I plead the House of Delegates to give the full pension for my husband’s service and death in the war. My husband was loyal to our country and his certitude that the patriots would win was admirable. He served and died for this country, shall not his death serve his country as well as his wife and now fatherless children? Shall the death of a man who loyally served his country for near a year not have any reward that he may look down from his place with the Father to see? For the honor and gratitude my husband should have been alive to receive, as well as the support his wife and children need, I ask for the full pension as promised.
Amongst these financial rights issues must be mentioned that I have the right to use one third of my late husband’s estate as well as my dower and the pension, but his family argues for ownership of all. I ask the court to not allow the property I have the right to be taken away. By law I have a right to the life usage of one third of the estate and the small amount of property brought into my marriage with me, my dower. His family already received the payment of my dowry from marriage, they are not permitted to my widow’s pension as well.
In my rights to war pensions I ask of the House of Delegates of Virginia to provide a full pay or at least an increased pay, and your petitioner as in duty bound shall ever pray.

More resources from the Library of Virginia and Encyclopedia Virginia

The Library of Virginia’s Legislative Petitions Collection includes almost 25,000 petitions sent to the General Assembly between 1776 and 1865. Some of these petitions are on display until November 19, 2022, in the Library’s current exhibition, Your Humble Petitioner. For more information about legislative petitions visit the Your Humble Petitioner webpage, watch a 5-minute video on the collection, search “petition” at Document Bank of Virginia, or take a look at our catalogue guide.

Encyclopedia Virginia provides a free, reliable, multimedia resource that tells the inclusive story of Virginia for students, teachers, and communities who seek to understand how the past informs the present and the future. Resources on the Revolution and Early Republic era are available online, with additional content coming soon.