This article explores the emergence of reformist sentiment and political culture in Madras in the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, it contributes to, and expands upon, the growing body of literature on colonial petitioning through a case-study of a mass petition demanding education reform. Signed in 1839 by 70,000 subjects from across the Madras presidency, the petition demanded the creation of a university that would qualify western-educated Indians to gain employment in the high public offices of the East India Company. Through an analysis of the lifecycle of this education petition, from its creation to its reception and the subsequent adoption of its demands by the Company government at Fort St George, this article charts the process by which an emergent, politicized public engaged with, and critiqued, the colonial state. Finally, it examines the transformative effect that the practice of mass petitioning had on established modes of political activism and communication between an authoritarian colonial state and the society it governed.