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Plymouth Rock Foundation’s E-News – January, 2013
by Dr. Paul Jehle, Executive Director

The Right of Petition

image 1On February 6, 1837 Congressman John Quincy Adams, former sixth President of the United States, and son of the 2nd President, made history.  Though for years petitions had been delivered to the House to abolish slavery, and many had been presented by John Quincy Adams himself, this one was unique.  It was a petition by 22 slaves!  In order to be wise, Adams simply asked the judgment of the Speaker as to “its propriety” without even officially offering it.  Immediately, however, the House was in a riotous state, with members shouting “expel him!”

Resolution after resolution was put forth to censure Congressman Adams since they could not get enough votes to expel him.  Three days later, on February 9, he rose to his own defense.  His eloquent speech did not argue for the abolition of slavery, and indicated that he had only asked the Speaker for his opinion, and the petition itself did not ask for slavery’s abolition.  What made his reasoning so cogent was that he went to the heart of the matter, defending the right to petition the House on anyimage 2 subject, and that government had no right to censure certain topics from coming before them.  It was so persuasive that no more attempts were made to censure him.

The year before, in order to keep petitions on the topic of slavery from coming before them, the House adopted the “gag rule”, where any petition dealing with slavery “be laid on the table and that no further action whatever shall be laid thereon.”  This, however, was clearly in violation of the 1st Amendment in the Constitution which stated Congress shall make no law…(against) petitioning the Government for a redress of grievances.  The right of petition was clearly understood to require that Congress consider such petitions.  After Adams’ actions in February of 1837, over the next two years more than 130,000 petitions would come before the House for abolishing slavery!

The historic roots of the right to petition come from the Bible.  God gives each individual the right to humbly petition Him in prayer.  A dramatic portrayal of such a right is in the book of Esther.  Here, Esther, at the risk of her life, petitions the King for her own life and the life of her people (chapters 5-7).  The scepter was the symbol of the King’s reception of petition and Christ is now that scepter!  “But unto the Son he saith, thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom” (Hebrews 1:8).  It is this theological foundation that gives free people the right of petition.  Those leaders and governments that refuse to do so define themselves as tyrants.image 3

The Magna Charta was the “great charter” of petition before King John of England in 1215.  Though forced to read it and receive it, it laid the foundation that no king can refuse to hear his own government or the people for that would make him greater than God.  The Olive Branch Petition of 1775 before King George III during the American Revolution was refused by the King.  It was in reference to this that the Declaration of Independence stated “in every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms; our repeated petitions have been answered by repeated injury.  A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the rule of a free people.”  The refusal to consider a petition was one of the marks of a tyrant!

Though America had been born on the foundation of such a right, when it came to slavery in the 18image 430’s, there were members of Congress who did not want to hear from either their own members or the people on its evil!  They did not want to be convicted in their conscience, and thus simply made a “gag” rule to avoid any petition on such a topic.  John Quincy Adams, the only President who would later give his days as a member of Congress, became the prophet of God on the topic of slavery as Wilberforce did in England preceding him.  He was called by his foes old man eloquent.  Over and over again, he would rise and talk about why slavery ought to be abolished – and this was when he was in his 60’s and 70’s!

Adams served as an ambassador when he was 14.  He wrote a book comparing the United States government with that of Russia in his late teens.  He became the leading spokesman for our nation’s foreign policy, serving under Presidents Washington, Adams (his father), Madison and Monroe.  He was the virtual author of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), and set the foreign policy of America squarely on Matthew 7:12 – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  This became, in essence, the abbreviated definition of the law of nations.  But his defense of liberty and freedom for all nations abroad only inspired him to give the last of his days at home defending the freedom of the slave!

image 6His successful defense of the slaves in the case of the Amistad (1841) is legendary.  So was his successful repeal of the Gag rule in 1844.  Even his last words, at age 80 (February of 1848), after having a stroke sitting in Congress, depicted the fact that he had run his race and finished his course (2nd Timothy 4:7) when he said; “this is the last of earth, I am content.”

What can we learn from such an individual?  As our own government is curtailing the right of petition in the area of religious expression, we see tyranny rising on the horizon.  Where should we begin in the defense of this unalienable right?  I believe it is clear that the Church must exercise this right first in the spiritual realm through prayer before it will ever be respected once again in the civil realm!  Let us petition the throne of God through the scepter of the authority of Christ’s blood and name, asking Him for mercy to triumph over judgment that His kingdom would come and His will would be accomplished in our nation at this time!


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