Thursday, June 12, 2014

Two Hundred Thirty-Eight Years Later

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

Final draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, 
page 1.  This copy was likely not written by Mason, 
as it does not show some of the characteristics of 
his handwriting. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On June 12, 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was ratified. George Mason IV, an oft forgotten founder, was the author of the Declaration. It had only minor modifications from his original draft. The Virginia Declaration of Rights is still a bulwark of the Commonwealth of Virginia's government, and is the first article of its Constitution.

Mason opened the document:

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.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights was the first such document in America to secure freedom, independence and certain inalienable rights, which would shortly thereafter become a part of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The rights enumerated in this Declaration have remained largely unchanged in the modern Virginia Constitution, with most sections still word-for-word copied from the original.

Final draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, 
page 2. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Significant portions of the original document are imminently applicable today. For example, Section 6 guarantees free and open elections, and that "all men...have the right of suffrage." Also, as enumerated in the Declaration, Virginia does not have a standing army, but rather "a well regulated militia" which is broken down into a variety of volunteer organizations, including branches of the National Guard, the Virginia Defense force and unorganized militia. These organizations currently work to bring aid in the case of weather-related and other disasters.

Sections 8, 8A and 11 are expansions of the originals, which protect the rights of Virginia citizens as related to criminal prosecution and civil court cases. These expansions include the enumerating the rights of the victims, governmental discrimination and the public use of private property. Sections 15A and 17 on the other hand are completely new to the original document.

Section 15A is a much debated addition to the Declaration, ratified in November 2006. This amendment pertains to the definition of marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. While more heavily debated on a national level, it is also being brought to bear on a state level by current appeals to district courts. It is impossible to say what the ultimate outcome of this debate will be.

Final draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, 
page 3. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Section 17, the last section of the document, prevents the limiting "of rights of the people not [herein] expressed." This is similar to the United States Bill of Rights, which secured undefined rights as the privilege of the States. It is unclear when this section was added to the Declaration.

In this day and age, 238 years after the ratification of the Declaration of Rights, it is still a very important part of the lives of Virginians. This Declaration, and the rights reflected in it, was one of the most important things Mason ever did. He was one of the strongest proponents for rights in the United States Constitution a little more than 10 years later. He wrote 17 objections to that Constitution, chief among them the lack of a bill of rights. Can you imagine what the United States and Virginia might have been like without explicit narration of the rights we all hold dear?

No comments:

Post a Comment