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.
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?
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?
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.