The Virginia Declaration of Rights – 1776

Fervor for independence was beginning to swell among the colonists, especially in Massachusetts. They were stockpiling weapons, they had raided British ships and dumped tea in Boston Harbor (The Boston Tea Party, 1773), and had been shot by soldiers when a group of protesters refused to disperse (The Boston Massacre, 1770).

Massachusetts was not the only colony that was starting to strain for freedom.

English: George Mason. original source: http:/...

George Mason (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Virginia was home to those who would become our most famous Founding Fathers, and some who were not quite so famous, but very influential.

For many years, most of the colonies had governed themselves, some for over 100 years. It should come as no surprise that as the colonies were getting more frustrated with the policies of Parliament and King George, they were ready for self-government.

By May 15, 1776, when George Mason introduced the Declaration of Rights, Massachusetts Bay was in open rebellion against the crown.

This document was adopted by Virginia on June 12, 1776, a few days after Richard Henry Lee introduced the Lee Resolution, that simply stated that the colonies should be free and independent. It became so important that it influenced not only the Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights and Man and of the Citizen, but was adopted as Article I of the Virginia Constitution. With a few modifications, it is still in effect today.

Mason’s declaration:

1. All men are free and equal, and have certain inherent rights, and nothing can deny or deprive them or their children:

  • Enjoyment of life and liberty
  • the means of acquiring and possessing property
  • pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety

2. All power is derived from the people, and the government are our servants, and must at all times be open to answering questions.

3. Government is for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community. The best form of government is that which produces the most happiness and safety to the citizens, and best secured against maladministration. When any government fails in this obligation or becomes the opposite of what it should be, it is the right of the majority to reform, alter, or abolish it in whatever way is most favorable to the well-being of the public.

4. No one is entitled to separate payments or privileges from the community at large (except for being paid for working in the office), and public offices should not be hereditary.

5. Legislative and executive powers should be separate from that of the judiciary. Members of the first two should be restrained from oppression by being reduced to a private station at fixed times, and replaced often by frequent, certain and regular elections. Former members should be eligible or ineligible as directed by law.

6. Elections of representatives ought to be free, and all men who are part of the community can vote. They can’t be taxed or deprived of their property for public use without their consent, or the consent of their elected representative. They are not bound by any law to which they have not, or their elected representative, have not given assent.

7. The creation, suspension, execution or enforcement of laws by fiat of any authority violates the rights of the people, and ought not be done.

8. in capital or criminal prosecutions, a person has the right:

  • demand the causes and nature of the accusation
  • face their accusers
  • present evidence in their favor
  • a speedy trial by an impartial jury
  • guilty verdicts can only be obtained by unanimous consent of the jury
  • he cannot be compelled to give evidence against himself
  • cannot be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers

9. No excessive bail, excessive fines, nor cruel and unusual punishment

10. Warrants should not be issued to search without evidence to back them up, or arresting people whose offense is not backed up by evidence.

11. Trial by jury is preferred for disputes respecting property and suits between people.

12. Freedom of the Press

13.  The original Second Amendment: That a well-regulated militia, or composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

14. People have a right to a uniform government, no independent government should be set up in Virginia or elsewhere. In other words, if Virginia has a Republican form of government, then someone within the State of Virginia cannot name themselves king.

15.There must be firm devotion to justice, temperance, frugality, virtue, and frequent recurrence to fundamental principles for any free government and liberty to be preserved.

16. Free Exercise of Religion.

Mason’s declaration was taken from the English Bill of Rights, and greatly expanded upon. The primary difference was in that the English Bill of Rights was primarily for landowners and noblemen, Mason’s declaration was for everyone (except for women and slaves).

This was perhaps the most influential document of the Revolutionary period. That it is still around today in Virginia is astonishing.

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