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The Virginia Declaration of Rights (George Mason's Draft)


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. 


Virginia's Fifth Revolutionary Convention met at the Capitol in Williamsburg from May 6 to July 5, 1776, and declared independence from Great Britain. The delegates also voted to prepare a constitution for Virginia as well as a statement of rights. Fairfax County delegate George Mason led the effort and drafted a document that outlined such rights 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. Other delegates suggested additional individual rights and the draft was debated for several weeks. The final version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted unanimously on June 12, 1776. It consisted of sixteen sections with additional rights including protections for the press, striking down of ex post facto laws (retroactively criminalizing an action that had previously been legal), banning excessive bail, and disallowing cruel and unusual punishment of the incarcerated. 

The language in the Declaration of Rights changed as several drafts were written. For example, one such revision included prohibitions placed on enslaved people. In this draft written by George Mason, he stated “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….” However, the final version 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….” This statement by definition excluded enslaved people who were not considered in "a state of society" by most white Virginians.

Virginia’s Declaration of Rights was the first state declaration establishing the fundamental human liberties that government was created to protect, and it 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 amendments to the United States Constitution that became known as the Bill of Rights.

In 1778, George Mason prepared this copy of his first draft of the Declaration of Rights from memory to indicate what he had initially proposed.

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

Related Document: Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution


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

Suggested Questions

Preview Activity

Scan it: Scan the document. What words or phrases stand out to you? 

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 Virginians. 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?