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The Virginia Declaration of Rights

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In May of 1776, delegates representing the People of Virginia met in Williamsburg for the purposes of declaring independence and creating a New Government.  Their convention eventually became the first group to form a Republican Government, and the first group to declare their independence from the mother country.

On May 15th, 1776, the Virginia Convention adopted a resolution to instruct their representatives to the Constitutional Convention to propose independence.  The Virginia Convention also formed a committee to create a Declaration of Rights and State Constitution.

The Virginia Committee for the creation of a Declaration of Rights and Constitution was chaired by George Mason IV, and included Richard Ludwell Lee, and a very young James Madison.  Mr. Mason, became impatient with the Committee and took it upon himself to write a draft Declaration of rights and submit it to the committee. Mr. Mason's draft was presented to the Committee, revised in committee, and presented to the Convention on May 27th 1776.[1] 

Committee Draft Edit

"A Declaration of Rights, made by the Representatives of the good People of Virginia, assembled in full Convention; and recommended to Posterity as the Basis and Foundation of Government.

That all Men are born equally free and independant, and have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity; among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursueing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.

That Power is, by God and Nature, vested in, and consequently derived from the People; that Magistrates are their Trustees and Servants, and at all times amenable to them.

That Government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common Benefit and Security of the People, Nation, or Community. Of all the various Modes and Forms of Government, that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest Degree of Happiness and Safety, and is most effectually secured against the Danger of mal-administration. And that whenever any Government shall be found inadequate, or contrary to these Purposes, a Majority of the Community had an indubitable, inalianable and indefeasible Right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such Manner as shall be judged most conducive to the Public Weal.

That no Man, or Set of Men are entitled to exclusive or seperate Emoluments or Privileges from the Community, but in Consideration of public Services; which not being descendible, or hereditary, the Idea of a Man born a Magistrate, a Legislator, or a Judge is unnatural and absurd.

That the legislative and executive Powers of the State shoud be seperate and distinct from the judicative; and that the Members of the two first may be restraind from Oppression, by feeling and participating the Burthens they may lay upon the People; they should, at fixed Periods be reduced to a private Station, and returned, by frequent, certain and regular Elections, into that Body from which they were taken.

That no part of a Man's Property can be taken from him, or applied to public uses, without the Consent of himself, or his legal Representatives; nor are the People bound by any Laws, but such as they have in like Manner assented to for their common Good.

That in all capital or criminal Prosecutions, a Man hath a right to demand the Cause and Nature of his Accusation, to be confronted with the Accusers or Witnesses, to call for Evidence in his favour, and to a speedy Tryal by a Jury of his Vicinage; without whose unanimous Consent, he can not be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give Evidence against himself. And that no Man, except in times of actual Invasion or Insurrection, can be imprisoned upon Suspicion of Crimes against the State, unsupported by Legal Evidence.

That no free Government, or the Blessings of Liberty can be preserved to any People, but by a firm adherence to Justice, Moderation, Temperance, Frugality, and Virtue and by frequent Recurrence to fundamental Principles.

That as Religion, or the Duty which we owe to our divine and omnipotent Creator, and the Manner of discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Force or Violence; and therefore that all Men should enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate, unless, under Colour of Religion, any Man disturb the Peace, the Happiness, or Safety of Society, or of Individuals. And that it is the mutual Duty of all, to practice Christian Forbearance, Love and Charity towards Each other.

That in all controversies respecting Property, and in Suits between Man and Man, the ancient Tryal by Jury is preferable to any other, and ought to be held sacred.

That the freedom of the press, being the great bulwark of Liberty, can never be restrained but in a despotic government. That laws having a restrospect to crimes, & punishing offences committed before the existence of such laws, are generally dangerous, and ought to be avoided.

N. B. It is proposed to make some alteration in this last article when reported to the house. Perhaps somewhat like the following That all laws having a retrospect to crimes, & punishing offences committed before the existence of such laws are dangerous, and ought to be avoided, except in cases of great, & evident necessity, when safety of the state absolutely requires them. This is thought to state with more precision the doctrine respecting ex post facto laws & to signify to posterity that it is considered not so much as a law of right, as the great law of necessity, which by the well known maxim is -- allowed to supersede all human institutions.

Another is agreed to in committee condemning the use of general warrants; & one other to prevent the suspension of laws, or the execution of them.

The above clauses, with some small alterations, & the addition of one, or two more, have already been agreed to in the Committee appointed to prepare a declarition of rights; when this business is finished in the house, the committee will proceed to the ordinance of government.

T. L. Lee"[2]

Importance of this document Edit

Thanks to the research and scholarship of R. Carter Pittman[3] and others, this document has begun to receive the attention it deserves. It now appears that this is the original declaration of independent rights on which others primary American documents are based. The document appears to have been widely circulated and known to those who would found the federal Government of the United States, but was largely forgotten by later scholars until it was given it's proper place in the 1950's and 1960's.

The loss of this document to many scholars may have contributed to the misunderstanding of Liberalism and Republicanism that exists to this day.

In the first paragraph, it is declared that these rights are to be the the basis and foundation of government. Unlike the Declaration of Independence of the US, this document, once adopted had the force of law in Virginia, and was superior to the later Virginia Constitution.

In the second paragraph, Mr. Mason refers to the inherent Natural Rights which are familiar to Liberalism and republicanism. He does not refer to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, as Mr Jefferson would later do in the Declaration of Independence. Nor does he refer to commonly accepted Life, Liberty, and Property. He does make it clear that these rights are inherent in all men, and that the transfer, or delegation, of rights to the government does not extinguish them in the individual, they are inherent and unalienable.

Mr. Mason expands his list of Natural rights to include not only the right to possess property (Capital) but also the right to acquire property. Thus Mr. Mason did not presuppose the superiority of Capital nor neglect the importance of Labor or the right to freely participate in the Market.

Mr. Mason also does not neglect to mention the right to pursue and obtain safety as well as happiness. How could a government predicated upon the limited transfer of right and power from individuals to government possess the power to protect if that power did not originate with the people.

In the forth paragraph, Mr. Mason acknowledged government's power to grant titles, powers and privileges to individuals and groups to act in the public interest. Mason's language makes it clear that these rights are limited to public service and can not be inherited. Not only are titles and nobility limited, but government grant of privilege is limited. Government had the right to create corporations with special privileges, for example, but only if the corporation served the public. This view seems to have been fairly common to those who were Mason's contemporaries. It certainly seems that Mr. mason did not intend to grant the government or the courts the right to extend these privileges beyond public service or permit them to be perpetual or heritable.

It should be noted that many of the views of Mr. Mason on limitation of the powers and duties of government in the US Constitution were rejected. However, Mr Mason and others led fights in state ratifying conventions which made acceptance of the US Constitution contingent upon affirmation that the rights represented in the Virginia Declaration remained with the people, and thus we have the Bill of Rights.

Adoption Edit

On July 12th 1776, the Virginia Convention adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights in it's final form.

A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free convention which rights do pertain to them and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government .

Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Section 2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.

Section 3. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration. And that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

Section 4. That no man, or set of men, is entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, nor being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary.

Section 5. That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judiciary; and that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burdens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections, in which all, or any part, of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws shall direct.

Section 6. That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly ought to be free; and that all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assembled for the public good.

Section 7. That all power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws, by any authority, without consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights and ought not to be exercised.

Section 8. That in all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.

Section 9. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Section 10. That general warrants, whereby an officer or messenger may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of a fact committed, or to seize any person or persons not named, or whose offense is not particularly described and supported by evidence, are grievous and oppressive and ought not to be granted.

Section 11. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other and ought to be held sacred.

Section 12. That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.

Section 13. That a well-regulated militia, 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.

Section 14. That the people have a right to uniform government; and, therefore, that no government separate from or independent of the government of Virginia ought to be erected or established within the limits thereof.

Section 15. That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

Section 16. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

Comment on Adopted Declaration and Revision Edit

Impact of the Draft Edit

The original Draft document was widely published within the British Colonies of North America soon after it's presentation to the Virginia Convention. The impact of the Draft document on those Americans engaged in writing the various State Constitutions was profound. The original Draft was also known to those French allies who were in America at the time of it's publication. The Liberal and Republican principles of the original draft found their way into many of the State Constitutions, and some French political documents as well. To many, if not most of the Founding Fathers, the Liberal principles of Mason's Draft Declaration were "Republicanism".

Revision by the Virginia Convention Edit

The Virginia Convention and many of the other southern Conventions were unwilling to embrace all of the Liberal and Republican ideals of the Draft Declaration. All of the southern Colonies were very dependent on slavery. Consequently, Southern States which adopted principles of the Draft Declaration changed the wording to protect the institution of slavery.

The Liberal principle "all Men are born equally free and independant, and have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity" was revised to read "That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity".

In the Declaration of Independence Edit

The same Liberal principle was in turn revised by the Virginia Convention's Representative in the National Convention, Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote the "Declaration of Independence".

In the Bill of Rights Edit

The Liberal Republicanism of Mason's Draft Declaration also became one of the primary objections to ratification of the US Constitution in the State Conventions. In Virginia and several other States, ratification of the Constitution was accomplished only after the pledge of Addition of "The Bill of Rights" which Mason advocated.

[4] [5]

ReferencesEdit

  1. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/tr00.html#obj6
  2. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/tr00.html#obj6
  3. http://rcarterpittman.org/
  4. Much of the information used in the creation of this article is due to the scholarship of R. Carter Pittman. http://rcarterpittman.org/
  5. http://allthingsliberty.com/2015/11/george-mason-author-of-rights/

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