The Contours of American Congressional Petitioning, 1789-1949: A New Database

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We introduce the Congressional Petitions Database (CPD), an original endeavor tracking virtually
every petition introduced to Congress from 1789 to 1949. Exploiting Congress’s ritual reading of
petition prayers, we leverage a supervised machine learning algorithm to create a database comprising
over 537,000 petitions. For each petition we code the prayer and its subject matter, geographic origin,
initial disposition and other information. Initial analyses suggest that (1) per-capita petitioning peaked
nationwide in the mid- and late-nineteenth century and remained at higher levels until World War I,
declining appreciably thereafter; (2) the South exhibits lower petitioning from 1802 to 1870 (but not
before 1800), cratering in the 1840s through 1860s and again later in the Jim Crow Era; and (3) the
unenfranchised petitioned regularly and their petitions were afforded process similar to all others. The
CPD will be useful for studies of legislative development, social movements, interest group advocacy, federalism and sectionalism.

Last updated on 01/31/2021