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The right to petition was the ‘cornerstone’ of all other liberties, petitioners frequently argued. In the UK the right to petition was based on precedent, conventions and popular constitutionalism and was not, as in polities established in revolutionary contexts, a codified constitutional right derived from the idea of popular sovereignty. The right to petition was a contested right formed through a continuous, dynamic struggle between petitioners and Parliament. The right to petition was open to all subjects, and not limited by class, gender, race, literary, property or the franchise. There was little restriction of the content, as opposed to the form, of petitions to Parliament, and the decreasing limitations on petitioning in relation to association and assembly, ensured it became the key mode in connecting, legitimating and underpinning other political activities. Finally, petitioners successfully pressed for a popular, open right to petition, but politicians were able to resist attempts to expand the right of petition into a right of presence or audience. The contest over the right to petition was one of the ways in which politicians sought to retain their discretion and uphold parliamentary sovereignty while acknowledging popular rights.
An examination of the practice of petitioning at the grassroots level shows how it stimulated a vibrant popular politics. Revisionist scholarship emphasising the supposed taming or disciplining of political culture has ignored the lively local culture of petitioning. The chapter first outlines the process and practice of petitioning: the drafting, signing, and presentation and reception of petitions. Of all these different stages in the process of petitioning, it was the practice of signing petitions that was most important to nineteenth-century popular politics. Not only did it underpin other forms of political activity, such as public meetings, but opened up new informal spaces for political activity and engendered new forms of political behaviour. The practice of petitioning stimulated a never-ending cycle of claim and counter-claim about the forging of signatures, the undue influence of landlords or employers, and outright misrepresentation. This endless contestation was intrinsic to the practice and process of petitioning and one of the most important ways in which it energised popular politics at the local level.
The ‘right of public meeting’ has historically been a key demand of extra-parliamentary political movements in England. This paper examines how public assembly came to be perceived as a legally protected right, and how national and local authorities debated and policed political meetings. Whereas previous histories have suggested that a ‘liberal governance’ dominated urban government during the nineteenth century, this paper offers an alternative framework for understanding the relationship between people and the state. It points to rights paradoxes, whereby the right of free passage and to ‘air and recreation’ often conflicted with the demand for the right of political meeting in challenges to use of public spaces. Local authorities sought to defend the rights of property against political movements by using the common law offences of obstruction and ‘nuisance’. By the first half of the twentieth century, new threats of militant tactics and racial harassment by political groups necessitated specific public order legislation. Though twentieth-century legislation sought to protect certain types of assembly and protest marches, the implementation and policing of public order was spatially discriminatory, and the right of public meeting was left unresolved.
Chapter 4 directly links the regulations introduced in Chapter 3 with public meetings. This chapter focuses on why proposals end up in public meetings and what types of issues members of the public and zoning officials raise. We introduce the novel data on meeting minutes from Massachusetts cities and towns that we use in Chapters 4, 5, and 6. Using these meeting minutes, we trace 100 randomly selected proposals in which we collected especially detailed project and meeting information. We show that once a project requires a public hearing, members of the public raise any and all concerns—not just those directly pertaining to the regulations that necessitated a meeting in the first place. The regulations described in Chapter 3 provide the opportunities for neighborhood defenders to air virtually all of their concerns and objections.
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