Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter xii.: petition.—association. - On Civil Liberty and Self-Government
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chapter xii.: petition.—association. - Francis Lieber, On Civil Liberty and Self-Government 
On Civil Liberty and Self-Government, 3rd revised edition, ed. Theodore D. Woolsey (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1883).
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15. We pass over to the great right of petitioning, so jealously suppressed wherever absolute power rules or desires to establish itself, so distinctly contended for by the English in their revolution, and so positively acknowledged by our constitution.
An American statesman of great mark has spoken lightly of the right of petition in a country in which the citizens are so fully represented as with us;1 but this is an error. It is a right which can be abused, like any other right, and which in the United States is so far abused as to deprive the petition of weight and importance. It is nevertheless a sacred right, which in difficult times shows itself in its full magnitude, frequently serves as a safety-valve, if judiciously treated by the recipients,2 and may give to the representatives or other bodies the most valuable information. It may right many a wrong, and the privation of it would at once be felt by every freeman as a degradation. The right of petitioning is indeed a necessary consequence of the right of free speech and deliberation, a simple, primitive, and natural right. As a privilege it is not even denied the creature in addressing the Deity. It is so natural a right, in all spheres where there are superiors and inferiors, that its special acknowledgment in charters or bylaws would be surprising, had not ample experience shown the necessity of expressing it.1
Where the government is founded on the parental principle, or where the despot appears as an earthly Providence, the petition of individuals plays, naturally, an important part, so long as it does not become either dangerous or troublesome, or unwelcome to the officers near the person of the monarch.
The Emperor Nicholas of Russia was often spoken to in the streets by petitioners; while, on the other hand, we remember a royal decree in Prussia, published about thirty years ago which directed that petitions must no longer be thrust upon the monarch personally. Under Frederic the Great, again, it was a common thing for petitioners to attract the king's attention by holding the petition above the heads of the crowd, when he would send an aid to take it. In China the right of petitioning the monarch is symbolically acknowledged, by the drum or gong at the palace gate, which the petitioner beats when he drops the petition into the receiving box. But the Chinese doubtless think and feel what the Russians express in the significant saying: “God lives high, and the emperor far.” The missionary Hue informs us that popular meetings, where petitions are adopted or dismissed, are not rare in China.1
The political philosopher in treating of this subject must distinguish between petitions to the executive, (and as to petitions for pardon, which have become a most serious evil in the United States, the reader is referred to the paper on pardons in the Appendix;) petitions of the army, which, history amply teaches, must be absolutely interdicted; we need only remind the reader of the English history, and that of France; and, lastly, petitions to the legislature. As to the latter, it is all-important for the cause of civil liberty, that is, the freedom of the people in earnest and in reality, that the petition, whatever demonstration of moral power or public opinion it may be, be unaccompanied by physical demonstration of crowds, armed or unarmed, in the legislative halls or outside. Indeed, they cease to be petitions and become physical threats or coercion. The history of the French revolution is almost one continued commentary on this position. The whole meaning of a legislature, as a necessary element of liberty, is that it be free; and it ceases to be free, so soon as crowds threaten it.
We maintain that the right of petitioning is important, and for this very reason it must neither be treated lightly, on the part of the petitioners, nor wrenched from its meaning and be changed into coercing threat. The petition in free states is an institution, and not an incident as in the despotic government. Resorted to as one of the civil agents by a free people, its distinct uses lie in its direct effect, in inciting and awakening public attention; in keeping alive an important idea, although it may not lead to immediate action; in countenancing those who desire to act and to be supported; in showing public opinion concerning some distinct point; in serving as a safety-valve in times of public excitement, and in being a substitute for unorganized and unreasoning crowds. Its dangers are the dangers of all agents whatever—its abuses, and the wide-spread weakness of men, which induces them inconsiderately to put down their names, rather than refuse the signature.
16. Closely connected with the right just mentioned is the right of citizens peaceably to meet and to take public matters into consideration, and
17. To organize themselves into associations, whether for political, religious, social, scientific, industrial, commercial, or cultural purposes. That this right can become dangerous, and that laws are frequently necessary to protect society against abuse, every one knows perfectly well who has the least knowledge of the French clubs in the first revolution. But it is with rights, in our political relations, as with the principles of our physical and mental organization—the more elementary and indispensable they are, the more dangerous they become if not guided by reason. Attempts to suppress their action lead to mischief and misery. What has been more abused than private and traditional judgment in all the spheres of thought and taste? Yet both are necessary. What principle of our nature has led, and is daily leading, to more vice and crime than that on which the propagation of our species and the formation of the family depend,1 or that which indicates by thirst the necessity of refreshing the exhausted body? Shall the free sale of cutlery be interfered with, because murders are committed with knives and hatchets?
The associative principle is an element of progress, protection, and efficient activity. The freer a nation, the more developed we find it in larger or smaller spheres; and the more despotic a government is, the more actively it suppresses all associations. The Roman emperors did not even look with favor upon the associations of handicrafts.1 In modern times no instances of the power which associations may wield, and of the full extent which a free country may safely allow to their operations, seem to be more striking than those of the Anti-Corn-Law League in England, which, by gigantic exertions, ultimately carried free trade in corn against the strongest and most privileged body of land-owners that has probably ever existed, either in modern or ancient times;2 and, in our own country, the Colonization Society, a private society, planting a new state which will be of great influence in the spreading cause of civilization—a society which, according to the Liberian declaration of independence, “has nobly and in perfect faith redeemed its pledges.” In every country, except in the United States and in England, the cry would have been, Imperium in imperio, and both would have been speedily put down.
We may also mention our voluntary churches, or the Law Amendment Association in England—a society which, so far as we can judge at this distance, has already produced most beneficial effects upon English legislation, and which in every other country occupied by our race, except in the United States, would be stigmatized as an imperium in imperio full of assumption. There is nothing that more forcibly strikes a person arriving for the first time from the European continent, either in the United States or in England, than the thousandfold evidences of an all-pervading associative spirit in all moral and practical spheres, from the almost universal commercial copartnerships and associations, the “exchanges” of artisans, and banks, to those unofficial yet national associations which rise to real grandeur. Strike out from England or America this feature and principle, and they are no longer the same self-relying, energetic, indomitably active people. The spirit of self-government would be gone. In France, an opposite spirit prevails. Not only does the government believe that it must control everything, but the people themselves seem hardly ever to believe in success until the government has made the undertaking its own.1
[1.]It was stated by him that the right of petition was of essential value only in a monarchy, against the encroachments of the crown. But this whole view was unquestionably a confined one, and caused by irritation against a peculiar class of persevering petitioners.
[2.]There is no more striking instance on record, so far as our knowledge goes, than the formidable petition of the chartists in 1848, and the calm respect with which this threatening document was received by the commons, after a speech full of dignity and manly acknowledgment of the people by Lord Morpeth, now Earl of Carlisle.
[1.]The discussion of petitions in the house of commons seems to have undergone a marked change, as will appear from the following remarks of Lord Brougham, which he made in the house of lords in June, 1853, when the extension of the time of the income tax was under debate. Lord Brougham said that he did not expect that the income tax would expire in 1860. He recalled the circumstances under which the old income tax was repealed, in defiance of the government of that day; through the instrumentality of nightly discussions on petitions—a popular privilege no longer allowed in the house of commons.
[1.]It would be a grave error, indeed, to conclude from this fact, or from the general democratic character of the Chinese system, that there is liberty in China—a conclusion as hasty as it would be to infer that freedom exists in France because the empire declares itself to be founded on universal suffrage.
[1.]The so-called Shakers endeavor to extirpate this principle, and furnish us with an illustration of the evils arising from the endeavor.
[1.][This is not borne out by facts, although the same broad statement has been made by others. Sodalitates were frowned upon, but collegia opificum, although the state controlled and could dissolve them, were numerous. See the list in the Index in vol. in, of the Orelli-Henzen Inscr. Latinæ; which shows that there must have been thousands of such unions, under the empire, all over the west. Comp. also Rein in Paully's Lexicon, under Collegium and Sodalitas. It is true, however, that despotism, especially in modern times, since the means of communication are better and more used, instinctively dreads combined action for any social, moral, or religious end, as dangerous to political power.]
[2.]A careful study of the whole history of this remarkable association, which in no state of the European continent would have been allowed to rise and expand, is recommended to every student of civil liberty. It is instructive as an instance of perseverance; of an activity the most multifarious, and an organization the most extensive; of combined talent and shrewd adaptation of the means to the end; and, which is always of equal importance, of a proper conception of the end according to the means at our disposal, without which it is impossible to do that which Cicero so highly praised in Brutus, when he said, Quid vult valde vult.
[1.]I cannot forbear mentioning here one of those occuriences which, although apparently trivial, nevertheless show the constant action of a great principle, as the leaf of a tree reveals to the philosopher the operation of the vastest elements in nature. At a meeting of the Royal Academy at London in 1852, at which the ministers were present, the premier, Lord Aberdeen, said that “as a fact full of hope, he remarked that for several years the public, in the appreciation of art, had outstripped the government and the parliament itself.”