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The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776


Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation. 


Early in 1776 John Adams published Thoughts in Government, a pamphlet laying out his framework for a republican form of government that influenced colonies as they created their individual state constitutions.  Virginia, like many of the states, would include a list of rights guaranteed to its citizens. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was drafted by George Mason and adopted on June 12, 1776. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was written after the members of Virginia's Fifth Revolutionary Convention voted in favor of preparing a new plan of government following the decision to break from England. Mason’s initial draft contained ten paragraphs that outline rights such as the ability to confront one's accusers in court, 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. The final version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights consisted of sixteen sections with additional rights including protections for the press, striking down of ex post facto laws, banning excessive bail, and disallowing cruel and unusual punishment of the incarcerated. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was an influential document and a forerunner for many documents that followed.

The language in the Declaration of Rights changed as several drafts were written. For example, one such revision focuses on the prohibitions placed on enslaved people. The first draft written by George Mason stated “That all Men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they cannot by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity….”However, the final draft, which was written before ratification was changed to read “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity….”  According to this final version of the Declaration of Rights, in order to be protected by the document it was necessary that you “enter into a state of society.” By definition, enslaved people were excluded from joining society in this way which meant they were not considered to be protected.

Virginia’s Declaration of Rights was the first state declaration establishing the fundamental human liberties that government was created to protect. The Virginia Declaration of Rights had a profound impact on America’s founding documents. Thomas Jefferson drew upon it when writing the Declaration of Independence and James Madison expanded on Mason’s ideas of guaranteed rights when he wrote the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution.

Citation: George Mason, Declaration of Rights, 1776, Accession 51818, Personal Papers Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia


VS.6, VUS.5, USI.6, CE.2, CE.7, GOVT.2, GOVT.3

Suggested Questions

Preview Activity

Scan it: Scan the document, can you spot any differences between the two drafts? What is different? What is the same? 

Post Activities

Analyze: Why would George Mason consider these rights vital to free society? Why were these rights considered by some to be revolutionary?

State your Case: You are an attorney representing Black Virginias. Write a brief argument in which you defend your client explaining how the language of the final draft of the document limits the expectation of Black Virginians to protections as written under the Declaration of Rights.

Virginia Validation: The Virginia Declaration of Rights was an influential document. How are the ideas found in the document relevant today?