The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1)
- There was document that preceded our Declaration of Independence. How did it influence it?
- How did this document from George Mason influence not only Thomas Jefferson, but the drafters of the Bill of Rights?
- What can we learn from Virginia’s declaration of rights to help us today?
Prior to the Declaration of Independence being adopted, Virginia adopted their Declaration of Rights.
A Declaration of Rights
Is 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.
George Mason wrote this declaration, but its impact goes far beyond the Commonwealth of Virginia. We can see the influence of this document on Thomas Jefferson in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration as well as the Bill of Rights. Let’s take some time and look at this predecessor of our Declaration of Independence.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights is broken down into 16 sections. Today, we’ll look at the first eight.
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 – Section 1
We find a similar theme in the second paragraph of the Declaration if Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Our freedom and independence do not come from government, it’s something we have by our nature, along with certain inherent and unalienable rights. When we join together into a society, we do not give up those rights. While both Jefferson and Mason agreed on Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Mason included the acquisition and possession of property, something that would be protected in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
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.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights – Section 2
One of the things in the constitutions of most of the states, but not in the Constitution of the United States, is the statement that all power is inherent in the people. George Mason recognized that all power is vested (encompassed) in the people. He also noted that magistrates, those who hold office, are trustees and servants of the people. That means anyone who works for a government, whether elected, appointed, or employed, is working for the people.
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.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights – Section 3
Again, we see the influence George Mason had on Thomas Jefferson.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.
Government is created for the benefit of the people, to protect their rights, and for their protection and security. The very purpose of government is to serve the people, a concept that seems to have been lost in modern America. Since governments are created to serve the people, if a government is unable or unwilling to do so, then it’s the right of the people to alter or abolish it.
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.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights – Section 4
No one is entitled to emoluments (profit) or privileges from the community except as compensation for public service. What does that say about government “entitlement programs”? If the people are not entitled to public monies except as payment for public services, then America’s entire welfare state is a fraud. Notice it’s not just money that people don’t have a right to demand from the community, but privileges. Also, in America, we do not have hereditary offices. As much as it may seem that some families have an almost exclusive right to an office, that’s a factor of the people’s sentiment than the law.
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.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights – Section 5
Here we see the idea of separation of powers in government. While not the full three branches of government we’re used to, George Mason called for the judicial power to be separate in order to act as a check on the legislative and executive powers. He also calls for the legislative and executive branches to be chosen by regular elections. A lot of people complain about how the political class seems to make a career of elected office, but they forget that if a majority of those voting choose to return them to office, that’s their decision. I agree we would be better off if those in elected office returned to the real world. All we have to do is convince a majority of our neighbors of that as well.
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, assented, for the public good.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights – Section 6
I’m pretty sure most Americans want their elections to be free and that everyone who can legally vote is allowed to, but George Mason had an interesting requirement for voting: Evidence of a permanent interest and attachment to the community. For those jurisdictions attempting to prevent the use of photo identification and allowing non-citizens to vote, I point to this expectation.
We also see the idea of private property not being taken for public use without the consent of the owner or their representatives. This is similar to the Fifth Amendments Takings Clause, which requires any taking of private property for public use be justly compensated.
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.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights – Section 7
Based on this, the idea of a court suspending laws without the consent of our representatives in the legislature, is a violation of our rights. This is certainly something worth thinking about at the federal level. Perhaps that is why this power was never delegated to the judicial branch in the Constitution. Then again, since those in Congress and most of our state legislatures ignore the Constitution already, it’s kind of a catch-22.
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.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights – Section 8
We see much of this in the Fifth and Sixth Amendment’s protections of the accused. Of course, the Constitution of the United States doesn’t state that a jury must be of twelve people or the requirement of unanimous consent to guilt; those are part of our statutory laws.
We are now halfway through the Virginia Declaration of Rights. We’ve seen what I believe is not only the predecessor to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, but the basis for much of what was included in them. This is why I think this document is worth studying. If we want to know how we got here, we need to understand where we started. If we wish to correct the mistakes of our past, we need look at where we started to know where we went wrong. As we proceed to the second half of this declaration, I believe we’ll not only learn more about our founding, but also the principles of the man who wrote it.
Paul Engel is an Affiliate of Institute on the Constitution. He founded The Constitution Study in 2014 to help everyday Americans read and study the Constitution. Author and speaker, Paul has spent more than 20 years studying and teaching about both the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. Freely admitting that he “learned more about our Constitution from School House Rock than in 12 years of public school” he proves that anyone can be a constitutional scholar. You can find his books on the Institute on the Constitution Store (theamericanview.com), Amazon, and Apple Books. You can also listen to his weekday radio show on America Out Loud (https://americaoutloud.com/the-constitution-study). You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org