For hundreds of years, Virginians have had the right to petition their government. Unlike the right to vote or hold public office during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was not limited to white, property-owning men. Women, free Blacks, enslaved men and women, and white men without property could and did petition the General Assembly for a wide variety of community and personal reasons: neighbors banded together to request new roads; riverside communities asked for ferries to be established; men and women petitioned for divorce from their spouses; emancipated men and women requested permission to remain in Virginia after they had been freed; and war veterans asked for financial relief. About 25,000 legislative petitions submitted to the General Assembly between 1776 and 1865 are in the collections of the Library of Virginia and are available online. A small selection of those petitions are on display in the Library’s exhibition, Your Humble Petitioner, through November 19, 2022.
Two of the petitions resulted from actions during the Revolutionary War. On January 1, 1776, British naval vessels bombarded Norfolk after Lord Dunmore and his fleet abandoned the city following their recent defeat at Great Bridge. The Americans let the city burn to prevent the British from retaking Norfolk and possibly reestablishing it as a naval base. Some residents managed to escape to safer locations, but many families had no place else to go and remained in the city during the bombing and faced the loss of their homes. Such was the case of Mary Webley, a Norfolk woman with three young children and a husband who had lost an arm in an accident years before, leaving the family in a financial struggle. During the attack a cannon ball landed on their home and broke Mary Webley’s leg while she was nursing her youngest child. The family lost their home and they fell into homelessness.
In October 1776, under the newly formed state legislature, Mary Webley submitted her petition describing the attack and how “she hath at present no Ways or Means to procure Shelter or acquire Subsistence for her herself and miserable little Children, her Husband and Self having had all their Effects totally destroyed in the Flames of Norfolk from whence they have been drove in most distressful Circumstances.” The assembly granted her request, providing a one-time compensation of £10 (about $1,900 today according to pound purchasing power at MeasuringWorth.com). What happened to the family afterwards is unknown.
Mary Webley Petition, 11 October 1776, Norfolk, Legislative Petitions of the General Assembly, 1776-1865, Accession 36121, Library of Virginia.
Later in the war, an enslaved man named James, “persuaded of the just right which all mankind have to Freedom” determined to aid in the defense of his country “notwithstanding his own state of bondage.” With the permission of the New Kent County planter who enslaved him, James offered his services in 1781 to the Marquis de Lafayette, then in command of the Continental Army in Virginia. Passing through the lines in the guise of a servant, laborer, or teamster, James served as a double agent who pretended to spy on the American army on behalf of the British but instead repeated to Lafayette the conversations he overheard waiting tables at the headquarters of General Charles Cornwallis in Yorktown. James carried messages “of the most secret & important kind, the possession of which . . . would have most certainly endangered” his life and also smuggled papers out of Cornwallis’s headquarters.
In 1784, after receiving a statement of support from Lafayette, James petitioned the General Assembly for his freedom, which was not granted. Undeterred, he tried again in 1786 and succeeded. He adopted the surname Lafayette and remained in New Kent County, where he purchased property during the 1810s. In 1818 James Lafayette was again successful when he petitioned the assembly for an annual pension, which he received until his death in 1830.
Engraving of James Lafayette with the Marquis de Lafayette's testimonial of his actions during the Revolutionary War, ca. 1824. Courtesy of The Valentine, Richmond.
Without legislative petitions, the stories of these Virginians and many others might have remained unknown. For more information about legislative petitions, see the Library’s online research note or search the petitions online.
These petitions are a remarkable and under-tapped resource. The religious petitions (from before, during, and after the Revolution) were the heart of my dissertation and first book: “Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped to Win the American Revolution & Secure Religious Liberty”
My Ancestry DNA comes back to arrival on a slave ship into the state of Virginia. I look Forward to reviewing the Petition