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The Virginia Declaration of Rights (2)

  • It’s time to look at the rest of the Virginia Declaration of Independence.
  • The last eight sections of this document include some of our most favored rights.
  • Let’s see what else we can learn from this predecessor to the Bill of Rights.

 

Last week we looked at the first eight sections of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. This predecessor to the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights not only gives us some ideas about what Thomas Jefferson was thinking when he wrote the Declaration, but why George Mason refused to sign the Constitution when the other framers did. Let’s finish the job by going through the last eight sections.

That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The Virginia Declaration of RightsSection 9

We repeated this language word for word in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution for the United States. It was meant to help prevent something so common in life today, i.e., the process being the punishment. Imagine being held in jail awaiting trial and unable to participate in your own defense because your bail is excessive? Sound like some of those charged with crimes related to the January 6th demonstration. What about being fined $100,000 for not paying a $100 fine? That happened a few years ago in Connecticut, when a man’s house was confiscated for failure to pay a small tax.

That general warrants, whereby an officer or messenger may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of a fact committed, or to seize any person or persons not named, or whose offense is not particularly described and supported by evidence, are grievous and oppressive and ought not to be granted.

The Virginia Declaration of RightsSection 10

This should remind you of the Fourth Amendment and its protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. 

U.S. Constitution, Amendment IV

Now look at law enforcement today. Judges have said that they can search, not because it’s reasonable, but because you didn’t try to keep it secret. Even worse, consider recent news stories about the Department of Justice using tools to search your social media or law enforcement using general surveillance without any evidence of your criminal intent.

That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other and ought to be held sacred.

The Virginia Declaration of RightsSection 11

When was the last time you saw a jury summons and thought of anything but getting out of it? Why was this idea of lawsuit being tried by a jury included in the Seventh Amendment?

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law. 

U.S. Constitution, Amendment VII

Why is a trial by jury so important? Because it places the fate of the accused in the hands of, We the People rather than government. In the case of civil trials, whether or not the person seeking redress wins is not decided by the judge or another employee of government, but by a group of ordinary citizens. This is especially important when a government is one of the parties in the suit.

That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.

The Virginia Declaration of RightsSection 12

One of the most common misconceptions regarding freedom of the press in the First Amendment is to whom it applies. Many people think that this freedom applies to the news media, possibly because of the “press badges” they wear. According to Noah Webster though, press is:

The art or business of printing and publishing.

PRESS, noun – Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

That means anyone involved in the art or business of printing or publishing is a member of the press. The freedoms mentioned in Section 12 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the First Amendment are not about a profession, but your ability to print or publish your thoughts. If, as the Virginia Declaration states, freedom of the press can only be restrained by despotic governments, what does that say about the current push by so many states and federal agencies to restrain your ability to publish, especially on social media?

That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

The Virginia Declaration of RightsSection 13

If you want to understand the Second Amendment to the Constitution, this would be a great place to start. Many talk about the militia, but here we see that it’s composed of the people who are trained in arms. These militias are, as the Second Amendment states, necessary to a free state, that standing armies in a time of peace are dangerous to our liberty, and that the military should be subordinate to the civilian power. These all point to the need of the people to not only have control over the military, but the arms to enforce it.

That the people have a right to uniform government; and, therefore, that no government separate from or independent of the government of Virginia ought to be erected or established within the limits thereof.

The Virginia Declaration of RightsSection 14

It seems a week does not go by when someone claims that there’s another constitution or another government in charge of this country. Not surprisingly, when asked for evidence, no one has yet to come up with any. What about those who ignore the law? Or govern outside of it, but get away with it? We have a uniform central government, governed by the Constitution. At least that’s what the law says. If we wish to protect our rights, then we need to ensure that the uniform government established under the Constitution is kept in place.

That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

The Virginia Declaration of RightsSection 15

This is one lesson every American should learn. If you wish to enjoy freedom and liberty, we must adhere to a few simple principles: Justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue. We do this by frequently reminding ourselves of these fundamental principles. Today, however, we do not adhere to justice, but place adjectives in front of it. We eschew moderation, temperance, and frugality, and we’ve replaced virtue with vice. No wonder our government is no longer free but indebted to the political parties.

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

The Virginia Declaration of RightsSection 16

Religion can be a touchy subject with some. Whether you believe in the God of the Bible, Allah, Buddha, or the random chance of the universe, do we not owe our creator a duty? How we fulfill that duty is up to us. The use of force, violence, or coercion should never be considered to attempt to persuade others what their duty is. Therefore, we are entitled to exercise our religion freely, according to the dictates of our own conscience. Mr. Mason also said that the Christian duties of forbearance, love, and charity is something we owe to each other.

Conclusion

I don’t know about you, but I have found this look into our past both informative and a bit up-lifting. If the people of Virginia could recognize these rights before we declared independence, then what should prevent us now? If eighteenth century Virginians could extend these rights to their neighbors, why not 21st century Americans? Seeing so much of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in this declaration gives me a better understanding of the men who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to independence.

Our walk through this Virginia Declaration of Rights also showed me the why of George Mason’s refusal to sign the Constitution. How many sections of this document were missing in the Constitution that was drafted in 1787? How many rights not protected, how many restrictions on government not said? If, as Mr. Mason wrote in section 15:

That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

The Virginia Declaration of RightsSection 15

Then this recurrence to the fundamental principles of liberty should become a regular and frequent occurrence. I know it will be for me.

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 paul@constitutionstudy.com