Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Virginia Declaration of Rights

By Mark Whatford
Deputy Director

In his draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (VDR), Mason wrote that "all men are born equally free and independant [sic], and have certain inherent natural rights,...among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursueing [sic] and obtaining Happiness and Safety." This was a call for American independence from Britain, in May of 1776. The Virginia Convention Ratified the VDR on June 12, 1776.

This uniquely influential document was also used by James Madison in drawing up the Bill of Rights (1789) and the Marquis de Lafayette in drafting the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789).

A Manuscript draft of the Declaration of rights, this section discusses the
importance of freedom of the press. Courtsey of the Library of Congress.
On May 15, 1776, the Virginia Convention "resolved unanimously that the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states . . . [and] that a committee be appointed to prepare a DECLARATION OF RIGHTS and . . . plan of government." Richard Henry Lee's resolution of June 7, 1776, during the Second Continental Congress, Lee put forth the motion to the Continental Congress to declare Independence from Great Britain, which read in part:
Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

This implemented the first of these Virginia Convention resolutions and precipitated the appointment of the committee to draw up the Declaration of Independence; the second proposal was carried out by the framing of Virginia's first state constitution, of which the VDR was an integral part.
As passed, the Virginia Declaration was largely the work of George Mason; the committee and the Convention members [among them being Thomas Ludwell Lee, Patrick Henry & Edmund Pendleton] made some verbal changes and added Sections 10 and 14. This declaration served as a model for bills of rights in several other state constitutions.

An early draft of the VDR was published in the Virginia Gazette June 1, 1776, and later in several Pennsylvania newspapers. It was republished in the Maryland Gazette on June 13th, as it was all over the American Colonies. The Pennsylvania newspapers carried a Williamsburg date line of June 1, 1776. For some unexplainable reason the Maryland Gazette date line was "Williamsburg May 24, 1776." The June 12th official Declaration was apparently not published beyond Virginia. The various state conventions and assemblies, and the Declaration of Independence committee copied from the June 1st draft as published in the papers.

Alexander Purdie, a publisher of the Virginia Gazette, added a postscript to
the June 14 edition of the newspaper which included the ratification
date of June 12, 1776.  Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.

John Adams added some clarification of the VDRs influence on the Declaration of Independence in his Diary on June 23, 1779 when he revealed that the Virginia Declaration of Rights "made by Mr. Mason" had been published in Philadelphia before he, Franklin and Jefferson prepared the Declaration of Independence, and that Pennsylvania copied it "almost verbatim." Adams did the very same thing for Massachusetts within the year in which that entry was made in his Diary. Both the Declaration of Rights of Pennsylvania and that written by Adams for Massachusetts, and those of many other states use Mason's original words: "That all men are born equally free and independent" etc.

Ray Raphael, author of the book Founding Myths, said of the VDR:
“In fact, during the Revolutionary Era, George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights was copied or imitated far more often than the Declaration of Independence… Notes from the Constitutional Convention make only two references to the Declaration, while essays in The Federalist Papers contain but one. When Patrick Henry addressed the Virginia Convention during the ratification debate, he asked rhetorically, “What, sir, is the genius of democracy?” He then proceeded to read from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, not the Declaration of Independence.”
George Mason was an enigma. He pursued his objectives relentlessly -- but in silence, whenever he could. He had a passion for anonymity. He let others take credit for his greatest achievements. He let Jefferson use the first three paragraphs of his Virginia Declaration of Rights to make a preamble to the Declaration of Independence, without ever commenting on it. He let Franklin hold himself out to the world as the "legislator of America," without protesting, although John Adams certainly did. He prepared the proposed Amendments copied by servile hands in the Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island Ratifying Conventions and which eventually became the Federal Bill of Rights, yet he let Patrick Henry present them to the Virginia Convention, without revealing the author.

R. Carter Pitman Papers (Memorandum)
Raphael, Ray, Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past. The New Press: New York, 2004.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776.

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