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Virginia Declaration of Rights

  • The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776
  • The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776
  • The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776
  • The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776
The Virginia Declaration of Rights was drafted by George Mason and was adopted by the fifth Virginia Revolutionary Convention on June 12, 1776.
Related documents:
  • Declaration of Independence
    Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
  • Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
    Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786
  • Mason's Objections
    George Mason's Objections, September 1787
  • Bill of Rights
    The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, December 15, 1791
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The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776

After having decided to break with Great Britain, members of Virginia's fifth Revolutionary Convention voted unanimously on May 15, 1775, to prepare a new plan of government or constitution for Virginia, as well as a statement of rights. George Mason arrived late at the convention and became the thirty-second of thirty-six members of the drafting committee. Mason soon took the reins and drove the discussion. Edmund Pendleton noted, “The Political Cooks are busy preparing the dish, and as Colonel Mason seems to have the Ascendancy in the great work, I have sanguine hopes it will be framed so as to Answer it's [sic] end, Prosperity to the Community and Security to Individuals.”

Mason's initial draft consisted of ten paragraphs that outlined such rights as the ability to confront one's accusers in court and to present evidence in court, protection from self-incrimination, the right to a speedy trial, the right to a trial by jury, and the extension of religious tolerance. All of the aforementioned rights were eventually adopted as a part of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution in 1791. Consulting with Mason, Thomas Ludwell Lee suggested two additional paragraphs, providing protections for the press and striking down ex post facto laws. Later, the drafting committee added other rights to the list, such as banning excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.

Once completed, the draft was debated between late May and early June 1776 and other significant changes were made. James Madison, often considered the “father of the Bill of Rights,” expanded Mason's statement of religious tolerance to religious freedom. This idea is represented in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is considered one of the cornerstones of a democratic government.

Pendleton suggested another critical change to the draft. He wanted to adjust Mason's sweeping introductory statement about freedom (“all men are born equally free and independant, [sic] and have certain inherent natural Rights”) to curtail its promise in such a way as not to include those who were not considered to be a part of Virginia's body politic. The phrase “when they enter into a state of society,” was inserted, amending the declaration specifically to exclude slaves. Enslaved people were not admitted into the state of society with free white men who were running the political process. (As a byproduct, women and Native Americans were also excluded). Though limited in this way, the concept was used again when Thomas Jefferson rephrased the idea and included it in the Declaration of Independence. For centuries the idea that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has influenced people around the world.

While the Virginia Declaration of Rights is a noted forerunner of the Bill of Rights, there are several provisions, considered precious and necessary in American society today, that were not a part of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The Virginians did not promise the right to free speech, the right to assemble or petition of the government for redress, or to prohibit the quartering of troops.

The final version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, consisting of sixteen sections, was adopted on June 12, 1776, and its subsequent influence is undeniable. For many years, however, the only version that was widely circulated was Mason's earlier draft. Mason's original draft is in the Library of Congress. In 1778 Mason prepared this copy of his first draft from memory to indicate what he had initially proposed.

For Educators

Questions

1. How many articles did George Mason propose? How many were adopted?

2. Which article do you think is most important to Virginians and all Americans today?

Further Discussion

1. Compare the text of the Declaration of Rights that was adopted by the Virginia Revolutionary Convention to the text that Mason proposed. What are the differences? Do the changes make any fundamental differences in the meaning of the document?

2. Compare the Virginia Declaration of Rights to the Declaration of Independence or the U.S Bill of Rights. Which language is echoed in the later documents?

Links

Video: Declaring Essential Rights: Virginia and the U.S. Bill of Rights

This Day in Virginia: June 12

Suggested Reading

Broadwater, Jeff. George Mason: Forgotten Founder. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Tarter, Brent. “The Virginia Declaration of Rights.” In To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Rights in American History, The George Mason Lectures. Edited by Josephine F. Pacheco, 37–54. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Press, 1993.

(Copy of the first Daught by GM.)
A Declaration of Rights made by the Representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free Convention; which Rights do pertain to them and their posterity, as the Basis and Foundation of Government.
1. That all men are created equally free & independent, & have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they cannot, by any Compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are the Enjoyment of Life & Liberty, with the Means of acquiring & possessing property, & pursuing & obtaining Happiness & Safety.
2. That all power is by God & Nature vested in, & consequently derived from the people; that Magistrates are their Trustees & Servants; and at all Times amenable to them.
3. That Government is or ought to be, instituted for the common Benefit, protection & Security of the people, Nation, or Community. Of all the various Modes & Forms of Government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest Degree of Happiness & Safety, & is most effectually secured against the Danger of Mal-Administration; and that whenever any Government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a Majority of the Community hath an indubitable, unalienable, & indefeasible Right, to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such Manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public Weal.
4. That no Man, or Set of Men are entitled to exclusive or separate Emoluments or Privileges from the Community, but in Consideration of public Services; which not being descendible, neither ought the Offices of Magistrate, Legislator, or Judge, to be hereditary.
5. That the Legislative & executive powers of the State shou'd be separate & distinct from the judicial; and that the Mem[bers] of the two first may be restrained from Oppression by feeling & participating the Burthens of the People, they shou'd, at fixed Periods, be reduced to a private Station, & return into that Body from which they were originally taken; and the Vacancys be supplied by frequent, certain & regular Elections.
6. That Elections of Members, to serve as Representatives of the People in the Legislature, ought to be free, and that all Men having sufficient Evidence of permanent common Interest with, & Attachment to the Community, have the Right of Suffrage; and can not be taxed, or deprived of their property for public Uses, without their own Consent, or that of their Representatives so elected, nor bound by any Law to which they have not, in like Manner, assented for the common Good.
7. That all power of suspending Laws, or the Execution of Laws, by any Authority, without Consent of the Representatives of the People, is injurious to their Rights, and ought not to be exercised.
8. That in all capital or criminal prosecutions, a Man hath a Right to demand the Cause & Nature of his Accusation, to be confronted with the Accusers & Witnesses, to call for Evidence in his Favour, and to a speedy Trial by an impartial Jury of his Vicinage, without whose unanimous Consent He can not be found guilty, nor can he be compelled to give Evidence against himself; And that no Man be deprived of his Liberty, except by the Law of the Land, or the Judgment of his Peers.
9. That excessive Bail ought not to be required, nor excessive Fines imposed, nor cruel & unusual punishments inflicted.
10. That in Controversies respecting property, and in Suits between Man & Man, the ancient Trial by Jury is preferable to any other, & ought to be held sacred.
11. That the Freedom of the Press is one of the great Bulwarks of Liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Government.
12. That a well regulated Militia, composed of the Body of the People trained to Arms, is the proper, natural, & safe Defence of a free State; that standing Armies, in Time of Peace, shou'd be avoided, as dangerous to Liberty; and that, in all Cases, the Military shou'd be under strict Subordination to, & governed by the Civil power.
13. That no free Government, or the Blessing of Liberty, can be preserved to any People, but by a firm Adherence to Justice, Moderation, Temperance, Frugality & Virtue, and by frequent Recurrence to fundamental Principles.
14. That Religion, or the Duty which We owe to our Creator, and the Manner of discharging it, can be directed only by Reason & Conviction, not by Force or Violence, and therefore that all men shou'd enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience unpunished, & unrestrained by the Magistrate; unless under Colour of Religion, any Man disturb the Peace, the Happiness, or the Safety of Society: And that it is the mutual Duty of all to practice Christian Forbearance, Love, & Charity towards each other.