“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 an 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.”
Article 1, Virginia Declaration of Rights
On Monday, May 6, 1776, the fifth Virginia Convention assembled in Williamsburg, Virginia. As delegates arrived, including Patrick Henry, George Wythe, Thomas Ludwell Lee, Thomas Nelson, Jr. and James Madison, war raged elsewhere in the Colonies and skirmishing occurred as close to the newly convened group as Norfolk, only a short distance to the East. Concurrently, the Second Continental Congress continued meeting in Philadelphia, where Virginians such as Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson held seats. Delegate George Mason, elected “with some difficulty” according to a contemporary account, remained at his Gunston Hall home in Fairfax County at the start of the Convention while suffering from gout. Once recovered, he arrived in Williamsburg on May 17 and took his seat the next day.
Earlier in May, the Continental Congress asked each of the colonies to create new governments. In response, the Virginia Convention established a committee charged with drafting a constitution and a bill of rights. As initially constructed, this committee included over thirty members, a number which grew after Madison subsequently joined the group. The committee, however, did not, at least at the start, prove effective. In fact, Edmund Randolph wrote that the committee demonstrated an “ardor for political notice rather than a ripeness of political wisdom.”
Mason received an appointment to the committee on May 18, his first day at the Convention. Like Randolph, he soon experienced frustrations which he communicated to Richard Henry Lee in a letter, writing, “We are now going upon the most important of all subjects---government: The Committee appointed to prepare a plan is, according to custom, over-charged with useless members…..We shall, in all probability have a thousand ridiculous and impracticable proposals.” Mason, however, did not resign himself to the fate he forecast in his correspondence to Lee. Quite to the contrary, he immediately began writing a constitution and a bill of rights independent of the committee. He worked quickly and efficiently. After only a week of work inside a room at the Raleigh Tavern, Edmund Pendleton wrote Thomas Jefferson saying that “the political cooks are busy preparing a dish, and as Colo. Mason seems to have the Ascendency in the great work, I have Sanguine hopes it will be framed so as to Answer it’s end, Prosperity to the Community and Security to Individuals.”
Although Mason worked closely with Thomas Ludwell Lee in preparing the documents, he remained their principle and primary author. Additionally, in drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason drew heavily on the Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights (1628), the Bill of Rights (1689), and the writings of John Locke. Despite the importance of these influences, Mason, in writing the Declaration of Rights, also articulated new ideas and concepts. In particular, Mason introduced the pursuit of happiness as a central component of liberty, a concept replicated by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
After review and some amendment by the committee and presentation to the full Convention, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was ratified on June 12, 1776. Two pages in length, the Declaration expressed ideas of seminal importance, ideas which proved influential during this transformative period in American history and which remain relevant today.
Recognizing the importance of this amazing document, the Board of Regents of Gunston Hall adopted a new mission statement in 2013. This mission is To utilize fully the physical and scholarly resources of Gunston Hall to stimulate continuing public exploration of democratic ideals as first presented by George Mason in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. Guided by this mission and inspired by the work of Mason, our organization is passionately and enthusiastically planning educational experiences designed to facilitate dialogue, reflection, and learning about the ideas and concepts which are contained in the Declaration. We are also initiating plans for a series of signature events in 2016, which is the 240th anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Rights. As we prepare for this year of collective exploration and learning about the Declaration, I encourage you all to begin your personal process of discovery now by reading the Declaration (you can do so at www.gunstonhall.org). Think about what it says and what it means. Think about what influenced its creation and what it in turn influenced. Please also share your thoughts with us and finally, think about George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
Happy 4th of July, and it is a great day at Gunston Hall!
Scott Muir Stroh III
Broadwater, Jeff; George Mason: Forgotten Founder; The University of North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill, NC; 2006.