After the members of the Fifth Virginia Convention voted in favor of preparing a new plan of government, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was drafted by George Mason.
As a landowner and near neighbor of George Washington, George Mason took a leading part in local affairs. He also became deeply interested in Western expansion and was active in the Ohio Company, organized in 1749 to develop trade and sell land on the upper Ohio River.
At about the same time, Mason helped to found the town of Alexandria, Virginia. Because of ill health and family problems, he generally avoided public office, though he accepted election to the House of Burgesses in 1759. Except for his membership in the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, this was the highest office he ever held – yet few men did more to shape US political institutions.
A leader of the Virginia patriots on the eve of the American Revolution (1775 – 1783), Mason served on the Committee of Safety and in 1776 drafted Virginia’s state constitution. (Britannica)
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.
Mason’s initial draft contained ten paragraphs that outlined 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.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights was unanimously adopted by the Virginia Convention of Delegates, on June 12, 1776. The same Convention also framed and adopted the Virginia Constitution.
Among the delegates were Mason, the most important contributor, and twenty-five-year-old James Madison, who drafted the section on the “free exercise of religion.”
Also present at the creation of the Virginia Declaration and Constitution were John Blair and Edmund Randolph. Eleven years later, these four delegates were chosen to the seven-member Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights was an influential document and a forerunner for many documents that followed. This declaration was the first state declaration establishing the fundamental human liberties that government was created to protect.
It was widely read by political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. 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. (Virginia-gov)
The declaration was particularly influential on later state constitutions because it represented the first protection of individual human rights under state constitutions of the American revolutionary period.
It also represented the shift from colonial charters to state constitutions, as the nation moved toward independence from Great Britain. (Middle Tennessee State University)
Declaration of Rights Is Similar to the Declaration of Independence
In language echoed later in the Declaration of Independence (it was drafted the next month by Thomas Jefferson). Section 1 of the Virginia Declaration proclaimed that all men “are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights,” including “the enjoyment of life and liberty” and property and that of “pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
Section 2 recognized that the people were the source of all power, and Section 3 proclaimed the right of the people to replace governments that did not meet these needs. Section 4 reflected the republican principle that no individual is entitled to power on the basis of hereditary, while Section 5 proclaimed the idea of separation of powers.
The Rights are Similar to First Amendment Rights (Bill of Rights)
Much of the rest of the Declaration of Rights outlined rights similar to those later incorporated into the US Bill of Rights.
At least two of these rights are similar to those incorporated in the First Amendment. Section 12 proclaimed that “freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”
Although the Virginia Declaration does not contain a provision on freedom of speech, its provision for religious freedom is actually more extensive than those incorporated in the First Amendment.
Mason had originally phrased this declaration in terms of “tolerance” for all, but, consistent with the teachings of John Witherspoon, the president of College of New Jersey (later Princeton) under whom he had studied, Madison insisted that religious practice was not a matter of majority grace but of natural rights.
Although the content of the Virginia Declaration and the later US Bill of Rights overlap in many ways, there are differences.
Madison appears to have constructed most provisions of the Bill of Rights more forcefully, so that courts could more readily protect individual rights by enforcing such provisions – for example, the First Amendment provision stating that “Congress shall make no law”. (Middle Tennessee State University)
Click the following link to a general summary about the Virginia Declaration of Rights: