As the American Colonists were preparing to separate from Britain, the soon to be independent States were working out the details of their own constitutions. King George III had refused to honor their long-cherished rights and as a result, most Americans came to believe that separation was eminent.
Having studied written charters of the past, primarily in English history, the hope was to embrace proven governing practices based on fundamental principles of human happiness, and experiment with new innovations that would best protect the rights of the people. The result would ultimately be a constitution written by representatives of the people and ratified by the people. Such a novel idea was only to be outdone by taking established principles and embedding them into a bill of rights in the form of policy. Americans were on the path to answering history’s unanswered question: Who has the right to declare the law?
The Virginia Convention took the lead in this new experiment. Their goal was to determine the powers and branches of their state government, check that power with restraints ensuring that it emanated from the will of the people, and put it in writing, thus giving it stability and permanence.
Before this could effectively be accomplished, a list of principles and a declaration of rights was needed as a foundation for their new government. George Mason came forth with a list of principles. Mason was a humble man, a “reluctant statesman.” While some sought to use this crisis as an opportunity for self-glorification, Mason won the day in the wisdom of humility. Edmund Randolph noted his contribution:
“Many projects of a bill of rights and Constitution discovered the ardor for political notice, rather than a ripeness in political wisdom. That proposed by George Mason swallowed up all the rest by fixing the grounds and plan which after great discussion and correction were finally ratified.”
On June 12, 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was approved by the Virginia Constitutional Convention, and it became the preamble to the Virginia Constitution.
Many of the other states used Virginia’s Constitution as a prototype when drafting their own. Each proclaimed as it were with one voice their shared beliefs about the role of government, the need for restraints, and the securing of natural rights. For instance, they guaranteed freedom of speech, the press, and religious worship. Individual liberty was the fundamental law. “A freeman’s remedy against a restraint of his liberty ought not to be denied or delayed,” declared the North Carolina Constitution. They recognized other freedom principles too:
- representative government,
- trial by jury,
- the protection against unreasonable searches of people and papers,
- the forbidding of cruel and unusual punishment,
- and more.
The Declaration of Independence and the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution were influenced by Mason’s work. Furthermore, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 followed Mason’s lead—liberty was catchy! That ordinance promoted freedom, enlightenment, and religious free exercise more than any previous legislative body ever had. Article 1 guaranteed religious liberty. Article 2 guaranteed the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus, trial by jury, proportionate representation, and other natural rights.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights contains sixteen declarations. George Mason wrote the first fifteenth; Patrick Henry wrote the sixteenth, concerning religious liberty.
“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 word recurrence means “to return to.” Mason is declaring to the world that a government based on principles of freedom will not survive unless the people are continually returning to and applying correct principles to every area of life. Principles guide us in making the right decisions personally and politically. They are essential for good character. When Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, these principles were well known, believed, and applied. The culture of that day was in harmony with universal principles of justice.
Americans studied these principles, publicly acknowledged them, and dared to proclaim them as the foundation of our country. The lesson from George Mason is clear—Americans will not retain their freedom unless “We the People” return to fundamental principles frequently.
William Cabell Rives, a former member of the U.S. Senate, observed that:
When we look at the Declaration of Rights prepared by him [Mason], and which, with few alterations, was adopted by the Convention, we shall find it a condensed, logical, and luminous summary of the great principles of freedom inherited by us from our British ancestors, the extracted essence of the Magna Charta, the Petition of Rights, the acts of the Long Parliament, and the doctrines of the Revolution of 1688 as expounded by Locke—distilled and concentrated through the alembic of his own powerful and discriminating mind. There is nothing more remarkable in the political annals of America than this paper.
For the first time in human history, individuals’ natural and unalienable rights—not just for Americans, but all human beings—were written down and acknowledged as the law of a commonwealth. In a forward to Robert A. Rutland's book George Mason Reluctant Statesman, Dumas Malone has this to say about Mason's contributions:
He was the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was adopted three weeks before the national Declaration of Independence; and in this he charted the rights of human beings much more fully than Jefferson did in the immortal but necessarily compressed paragraph in the more famous document. Of the contemporary impact of Mason's Declaration there can be no possible question. Draftsmen in other states drew upon it when they framed similar documents or inserted similar safeguards of individual liberties in their new constitutions. Universal in its appeal, it directly affected the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789. In our own time it is echoed in the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Writing in his old age, Lafayette said: "The era of the American Revolution, which one can regard as the beginning of a new social order for the entire world, is, properly speaking, the era of declarations of rights." More than any other single American, except possibly Thomas Jefferson, whom in some sense he anticipated, George Mason may be regarded as the herald of this new era; and in our own age, when the rights of individual human beings are being challenged by totalitarianism around the world, men can still find inspiration in his noble words.
The Virginia 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.
Section 1. 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.
Section 2. 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.
Section 3. 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.
Section 4. 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.
Section 5. 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.
Section 6. 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.
Section 7. 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.
Section 8. 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.
Section 9. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Section 10. 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.
Section 11. 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.
Section 12. That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.
Section 13. 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.
Section 14. 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.
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.
Section 16. 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 practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.