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Petition For Redress of Grievances
By Nathan Barton © 2010

December 06, 2010

The First Article of the U.S. Bill of Rights, states in part: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In discussion of an opinion piece by Nat Hentoff on this subject, I was asked a series of questions. I’ve refined these into three parts. Does this clause assume that the “Government” automatically has “total power” over the people? Or that it might have some power over the people? And is it only to some entity that has some power over a person to which that person can petition? These are questions I’ve never even thought about, but I assume that the Founding Fathers did. This column tries to address those issues.

The first question is answered easily enough, right in the First Article: the article lists a whole list of powers which Congress (and therefore, the rest of the Government) does NOT have: to establish (or prohibit the establishment) of a religion, to prohibit free exercise of a religion, to abridge freedom of speech, to abridge freedom of the press, to abridge the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and of course, no power to abridge the right of petition. No, Government as seen by the Founding Fathers did NOT have total power over the people: either individually OR collectively. This very article removes that possibility.

Indeed, there is logic to this. If a person or entity has total or absolute power over you, there is no one beyond that entity to petition. And what good does it do to petition the entity itself? If King George had unlimited power, petitioning to him (except in vague appeals to "mercy" or "love" - vague to anyone except God) does no good at all. The only time that petitioning has any practical impact is if the entity has limited powers - and moreover, if those powers are granted by someone else - to whom that petition may be directed. In practical terms and in terms of the Constitution, those powers are granted to Congress by the people. The people, in turn, have that power to grant (IF indeed they DO have authority to grant such powers) such power given to them by the Creator - a fact referred to not in the Constitution, but in the Declaration of Independence. And that document, written under the authority of the British Constitution (although not a written document, still a concept), demonstrates that: petitioning King George for redress of grievances made no sense unless George was limited in powers and answered to someone else: Parliament. Which in turn answered to the people, who in turn answered to God: the Creator.

The second question (does government have some power over people?) is also answered right here in the First Article: They DID assume that Government has some power over people, even if it is nothing but the power of force, of might; of hired goons and guns and chains and jails and searches and seizures.

The Constitution did not totally remove that power, but simply sought to limit it. For that, we may certainly take exception and say they were wrong. Wrong either because NO ONE and NO ENTITY should have power over people (except God), or because Government, even with the Constitutional limitations, cannot be trusted to use that power in a moral way. Either way, only one conclusion is ultimately acceptable: government is wrong and must be done away with. At least, any form of government which is involuntary or which can exercise any power which can be abused. In that case, the question of petition is moot.

But for those who refuse to accept anarchy, the minarchists (including the Constitutional variety), for which SOME government power (however limited and constrained it may be) is acceptable, in theory or in practice, the question of petition and redress of grievances remains. So we still should answer two questions, for both practical purposes and perhaps to show the minarchists the errors of their way.

But even though the Founding Fathers may have been wrong to think that SOME government power was moral, we must also face another fact: Just because it may be WRONG to be under the power of a government does not mean that we won’t be, de facto, under that power. At least to some degree. It is wrong, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

So we come to the third question and why it is still important. Is it only those who are in the power of a government (or any other entity) that can have a right to petition? This is a much more difficult question to answer. Assuming that said government’s power over us is LIMITED in some way (such as the Bill of Rights), it is important we understand how to use that tool, even though we may believe that the tool itself is wrong; as wrong as the idea of coercive government and submission to any man is wrong. For one thing, if we reject the idea that government has any moral power over us, do we then give up any right to petition government for redress of grievances?

Now, we look at the last question, and some additional matters that asking these questions raise. Is it only those who are in the power of a government (or any other entity) that can have a right to petition? In other words, if we reject as immoral and illegal any governmental power over us, can we still petition for redress of grievances?
  • Redress (American Heritage Dictionary) means: “To set right; remedy or rectify. To make amends to. To make amends for. To adjust (a balance, for example). Satisfaction for wrong or injury; reparation. Correction or reformation.” All these definitions can (and in my opinion do) fit in the First Article.
  • Grievances (also from AHD) means: “An actual or supposed circumstance regarded as just cause for complaint. A complaint or protestation based on such a circumstance. Indignation or resentment stemming from a feeling of having been wronged.” Obviously, only the first sentence applies.
The Bill of Rights was written in the 1780s. The Founding Fathers had a clear idea of what they meant by a right of petition, redress, and grievances.

Today, it is obvious, that "right" (like so many others) has been watered down, badly. It is reduced to a vague idea of "right to lobby Congress" and "right to write a letter to your Congressman" (or even - gasp! the President) and the "right to sign a petition to nominate someone or initiate (or refer) a law." (Oh! And of course, the "right to pray to God for relief from injustice - provided such prayer is done in private and is not offensive to anyone else whether present or not.") If there is some specific “”circumstance regarded as just cause for complaint” we can follow some law, or some regulation, or some guidance written by some agency to complain: “I waited too long, I wasn’t told everything I needed to know, I got the money too late, and on and one.”

I think it is obvious that the First Article use means a whole lot more - and that the people who wrote the First Article and rammed it through Congress and the States intended it to mean a LOT more. Considering that they lived in a constitutional monarchy, but knew of many other forms of government, they had specific ideas; considering that they had spent most of a decade fighting for liberty from that monarchy and from the Parliament (at least “quasi-republican) that already held most of the power, they had a very good idea of what the “right to petition” meant.

As discussed in the first part of this column, it was obvious that they did NOT think that only those under the control of (in the power of) an entity such as the Federal Government could petition. Clearly, anyone who WAS under any amount of government control did have a right to petition. But in looking at the definitions above, it is clear that you don’t have to be under government (or any entity’s) control to have a grievance against a government (or other entity).

  • Your neighbor has a dog which he allows to roam the neighborhood, including your property - chasing your cats, scaring your chickens, overturning your trash can. You can have a complaint against him, and you can petition HIM (or even better, his WIFE, assuming he is married - remember, “higher authority”) to control his dog and pay for the munched chickens. If he fails to do so, you can resort to a “higher authority” - your God-given right to defend yourself and your property - and shoot the dog. But IF you instead call the cops, you are voluntarily submitting to THEIR authority or power, and trying to force your neighbor to INVOLUNTARILY submit to them.
  • You have a ship out on the water and a government warship wrongly fires at you and damages your ship. You have a complaint against that ship and those who own and operate it - unless they were acting in self-defense against you, of course. You don’t have to submit to their power in order to petition that government (either the ship’s captain or his boss or so on) to fix what they did. At most, they may try to make you do it according to their procedures, but that does not (by recognized law, not just morality) put you in their control.
So legally and morally, no submission to the power of the state is necessary to be able to petition that government, and there is nothing at all I can find in the Constitution which says that is necessary. (There are court cases and Attorney General rulings and such that try to claim that the Constitution only applies to “citizens” and that being a “citizen” means that you have submitted. Sorry: show me WHERE it says that. I cant find it.) They can try all they want to, but except by force, without any moral justification, they cannot make it so.

The third question being answered, let us go to the other ideas triggered by the discussion.

First, what are the "grievances" which we wish to be redressed? (I’m addressing these, for convenience, from a “minarchist/Constitutionalist” point of view, views I do not agree with but am willing to use for argument sake, and because many fellow-lovers-of-liberty have not been able to see the light, yet.)

Now, maybe I'm being a pettyfogging lawyer by slicing and dicing this like I am, but it seems that a government organized under the Constitution (taken at face value and not a hologram) can only have TWO general types of grievances which it could commit (and these are really just two sides of a coin): (1) government violating the liberties (rights) of the citizen (whether or not those rights are expressly stated in the Constitution), and (2) government FAILING to protect the liberties (rights) of the citizen - as it is obligated to do under the terms of the Constitution. Everything else, from the county mower running over your dog to the Abominable Act (ObamaCare) fits under these two things (or both of them).

Let me (as I am wont to do) compare these to God’s Word. If a christian has something against his brother, Jesus tells him he is to first "go to that brother." If that fails, the Christian is supposed to take two or three brothers with him to the offending brother. Next step, if that fails, for the Christian, is to "take it to the whole congregation." If that does not work in the church, the implication is to leave problem up to God to resolve as He sees fit and appoints to deal with it. Four steps, or stages. The initial stage might have two parts: if it is a brother’s child or employee that made the original cause for complaint, it makes sense to go to the child or employee first but primarily to the person under whose authority they are functioning as a child or employee.

In modern American terms, is it not appropriate to lay out four similar steps?

Going to the brother is both the original person: “Mr. Mower Operator, you killed my dog, and “Mr. Road Foreman, your employee killed my dog.” Call it an administrative appeal.

If that fails, you need to elevate matters, just as the christian is supposed to do by taking two or three brothers. We are talking actual legal action in court, or to lobbying (petitioning) the county commissioners or even the legislature.

I that fails, how do we “take it to the whole congregation?” I believe that the Constitutional equivalent of that is a direct appeal "to the people" - starting perhaps with the ballot box and related things like recall and referendum. But given the Founding Fathers’ own actions, that appeal “to the people” can and may be FORCED by circumstance to include more direct appeals to the people - including but not limited to the militia: the ammo box. The United States did this in 1776, the Confederate States did this in 1861, the veterans of WW2 did this in Athens, Georgia in 1946, the people of many places in Eastern Europe did this in the 1990s.

To some degree, this form of appeal - appeal to arms, leads directly to the final step found in the Bible: leaving it in God’s hands. In the political realm, that same holds true, place the resolution in God's hands: or as the old Latin has it: God Maintain the Right! The issues must be resolved by force of arms, and God will grant the victory to whom He sees fit. Through His providence He gave victory to the US in 1783, and denied it to the CS in 1865. He denied it to the Hungarians of 1956 but granted it to them in 1992. We cannot fathom His ways; but at least we don’t have to go to court with him, as a friend pointed out.

So, at a minimum, as I understand it, the first stage of "petition" would include legal action in courts AGAINST the Congress, the Executive Branch - and the Courts themselves. That, in turn implies what is stated explicitly in the Second Amendment, which I notice that Nat Hentoff ignores: that a failure on the part of the branches of government (or the "state" if you prefer) to redress those grievances authorizes/legitimizes more action - specifically (and ultimately) an appeal to arms in defense of your liberty: even (or especially!) against the very agencies of the state that refused to take any action to defend you and your liberties (rights). This does not in itself require that total power be given to anyone or that we recognize that they have any power over us or not: God of course being the SOURCE of any and all power.

For those who wish to argue from a non-Biblical point of view, I submit that the outcome is the same: the Constitution was established “by The People” working through their states; the ultimate recourse is as stated by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.”

This is clearly a much different view than I suppose 99 out of 100 people hold, but it matches both the language, the actions of the Founding Fathers, and what I find in Scripture. God did not give us freedom, free will, liberty, just so that we could give it up for someone else: especially not governments of this world. The Founding Fathers realized this, even if they did not fully understand it, and made mistakes in creating the Constitution itself, and the forms of society which they established.

Although I’ve addressed this from a minarchist/Con stitutionalist point of view, we as anarchists should seriously consider that this process makes sense and follow it. If nothing else it is a way to make it clear to others that we are not immediately resorting to what they would brand “aggression.” (And I know many will not do otherwise, no matter how many opportunities we give them.) At each step, we will gain allies and grow in physical and moral strength (as indeed we are). And finally, because it is the godly thing to do: to give even those evil people a chance to repent. We ALL have to answer for our actions.

The final point to conclude this column is a simple (but very hard one): if we are willing to petition for the redress of grievances and thereby take back our God-given liberties, we must understand what that really means and be willing to go the whole way. There is no room for half-hearted actions or partial commitment, any more than there was when those 56 men signed their names to “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor,” or when Jesus told the disciples (speaking of the would-be disciple) to “take up his cross and follow after Me.” And THIS applies both to the anarchist and minarchist.


Nathan Barton is writing this from somewhere in the West, where whatever freedom and liberty we have left in this nation can still be found, despite the efforts of so many haters of liberty.  Feel free to contact him through The Price of Liberty.


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