Your Humble Petitioner Essay Contest

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Middle School Student Essay Contest

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

Individuals could submit petitions for personal assistance. Mary Webley, John Harper, and James Lafayette experienced the Revolutionary War in different ways. Read their petitions below to find out why they petitioned the General Assembly as a result of those experiences. Imagine you lived during that time period and 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.


Contest Rules


Submit your 400-word petition by Friday, November 18, 2022, for a chance to win an Apple iPad!

  • Entries must be submitted online using the form below by Friday, November 18, 2022.
  • Each entrant must be a 6th–8th grade student at a public or private school in Virginia. Homeschoolers may also apply. Two (2) winning essays will be selected.
  • All entries must be original works that have not been published or submitted for publication anywhere else.
  • Entry should not exceed 400 words
  • Entries become the property of the Library of Virginia and will not be returned.
  • The Library of Virginia reserves the right to use the winners’ names and entries for promotional purposes in all forms of media without notice, review, approval, or compensation, except where prohibited by law.

Timeline

  • Deadline for entries is Friday, November 18, 2022.
  • Winners will be notified by December 2, 2022.
  • Winning essays will be posted to the Library of Virginia’s Your Humble Petitioner webpage by December 9, 2022.

Questions?

Judging Criteria

  • Content—Reflection of careful and thorough thought
  • Focus—Prompt questions answered and main idea clearly articulated
  • Support—Relevant, quality details about important thoughts and concepts
  • Style— Essay shows creativity, good word choice, and structure
  • Mechanics—Correct use of grammar, spelling, and punctuation

Contest Submission Form

Copy and paste your response to the contest prompt here.

Learn more about the Revolutionary War Petitioners

Mary Webley, her disabled husband, and their three children were living in Norfolk when British forces bombarded the city on January 1, 1776. Mary Webley’s home was hit by a cannonball that broke her leg and destroyed their home. With her husband unable to work and no home for their family, she asked the General Assembly for help and was granted £10 (worth about $2,000). What happened to her afterwards is unknown. Read a transcription of her petition.

John Harper enlisted in the First Virginia State Regiment in March 1777 for a term of three years. He was at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777–1778 and participated in the Battle of Stony Point, in New York, on July 16, 1779, when the Americans took a British outpost on the Hudson River. He was wounded at the battle, but continued to serve until the end of his enlistment. John Harper was a resident of Elizabeth City County in 1809 when he petitioned for a pension because his wound prevented him from supporting himself. The Assembly did not grant his pension and what happened to him afterwards his unknown. Read a transcription of his petition.

James Lafayette was born enslaved. During the Revolutionary War he asked permission to work as a spy for the Marquis de Lafayette in Yorktown. He pretended to spy on the American army on behalf of the British, but repeated to Lafayette the conversations he overheard waiting tables at the headquarters of General Cornwallis. James also carried messages from Lafayette to other agents behind the enemy’s lines. In 1786 he petitioned the General Assembly for his freedom, which was granted based on his service as a spy. He adopted the surname Lafayette and purchased property in New Kent County, where he lived for the rest of his life. Read a transcription of his petition.


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.


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. Petitions were an important way for Virginians, and Americans, to express their opinions on a variety of issues and to persuade legislators to make changes in their new nation. The majority of legislative action in early America came about because of petitions submitted by the people. Inspired by the ideals present in our founding documents, such as the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, Virginians petitioned for a wide variety of reasons, including freedom to worship as they chose, reduction in their taxes, and approval to open new schools.

Inspired by the fundamental freedoms expressed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights adopted in June 1776, Virginians submitted a variety of petitions to the General Assembly. One of the Declaration’s principles stated that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of Religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” At the time Virginia still had an official church that was supported by taxes. Hundreds of petitions were filed by members of dissenting churches (including Baptists and Presbyterians) requesting relief from religious taxation, an end to laws supporting the Anglican Church, and in support of religious freedom. One of those petitions calling for an end to religious taxation and equal liberty for all denomination was signed by thousands of Baptists and submitted in October 1776. It took ten years before the General Assembly approved the Act for Religious Freedom in 1786.

Other Virginians recognized the importance of educating citizens of the new United States. Rockbridge County residents who believed in “the importance of female education to the well being of society” submitted a petition in 1807 to establish a school in Lexington. The Assembly approved the bill to incorporate the trustees of the Ann Smith Academy.