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Securing the Blessings of Liberty: Virginia and the Road to the U.S. Bill of Rights

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  • Resolution Respecting Baptist Petition. Undated draft resolution in the handwriting of Patrick Henry, adopted by the Third Virginia Convention on August 16, 1775. Papers of the Third Virginia Convention, Revolutionary Government. Record Group 2. Library of Virginia., LVA
    Resolution Respecting a Baptist Petition
  • Virginia General Assembly, Legislative Petitions of the General Assembly, Petition of 160 inhabitants of Prince Edward County, September 24, 1776, presented to the House of Delegates on October 11, 1776, Prince Edward County, Record Group 78, State Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia., LVA
    Prince Edward County Petition
  • George Mason, Declaration of Rights, 1776, Accession 21512, Personal Papers Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    Virginia Declaration of Rights
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, 16 January 1786, Manuscript, Records of the General Assembly, Enrolled Bills, Record Group 78, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
  • Adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Virginia State Artwork Collection: acquired: 1974, Library of Virginia., LVA
    Adoption of the Virginia Rights
  • Records of the General Assembly, Executive Communications, Record Group 78, Library of Virginia., LVA
    Bill of Rights
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Securing the Blessings of Liberty:
Virginia and the Road to the U.S. Bill of Rights

During the American Revolution, Virginians produced some of the cardinal texts of American liberty and later made important contributions to the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. Among the most important rights of Americans that received protection are freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to a jury trial in civil and criminal cases conducted by due process of law, the right to be secure from unreasonable government searches and seizures, and prohibitions on ex post facto laws and cruel and unusual punishment. The most original contribution Virginians made to American liberty during the American Revolution was the right to the free exercise of religion and separation of church and state.

Baptists and other Virginians challenged the privileged status of the established Church of England before the Revolution began and linked the cause of full religious liberty to the cause of the civil and political liberties that the colonies declared independence in order to preserve and protect. Patrick Henry, who had assisted persecuted Baptist ministers before the Revolution began, and James Madison persuaded the last of the five Virginia Revolutionary Conventions in June 1776 to amend George Mason's draft Declaration of Rights to transform it from a statement of religious toleration into an assertion of full religious liberty. Baptists and other dissenters seized on that article of the Declaration of Rights to make the struggle for religious liberty an integral part of the Virginia struggle for independence.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted on June 12, 1776, was the first state declaration of fundamental liberties that government was created to protect and must not infringe on, and inclusion in that declaration of freedom of religion led in 1786 to the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom that disestablished the Church of England and transformed religious denominations and religious practices into purely private and personal matters.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights exercised a powerful example during debates in 1787 and 1788 about ratification of the Constitution of the United States, which as submitted to the state conventions had no enumeration of rights comparable to the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Among Virginia's delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that drafted the Constitution, George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, objected most strenuously to the omission of a bill of rights; and at the Virginia ratification convention in June 1788 he and Patrick Henry were the strongest opponents of the Constitution, in part because it contained no bill of rights to protect the essential liberties of Virginians from the new and stronger national government. Their opposition to ratification eventually persuaded James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, that the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution would calm the fears of the Constitution's opponents and secure the rights that he, too, believed were essential for all Americans.

When the Virginia General Assembly ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States on December 15, 1791, Virginia's statesmen completed the work begun fifteen and a half years earlier when the Virginia Convention of 1776 adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights before it adopted a new constitution to create a state government to protect those rights.

For Educators

"Virginia and the U.S. Bill of Rights"

Virginia Standards of Learning: VS.6 (b), USI.7 (b), VUS.1 (h), VUS.5 (a) (b) (d), CE.2 (b), CE.3 (b), CE.6 (a) (b) (c) (d)
National History Standards: 3B (Grades 7-12)

Download the lesson plan: Pdf (155 KB) Word (193 KB)

People Featured in This Unit:

  • Patrick Henry (1736–1799)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
  • James Madison (1751–1836)
  • George Mason (1725–1792)