Virginia Declaration of Rights

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Virginia Declaration of Rights

Statement of rights adopted by the colony of Virginia in 1776, which served as the model for the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights is an important document in U.S. constitutional history. Adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention on June 12, 1776, its sixteen sections enumerated specific civil liberties that government could not legitimately take away. The declaration was adopted during the last months of British colonial rule. Thomas Jefferson used parts of it in the Declaration of Independence, and it later served as a model for the Bill of Rights that was added to the U.S. Constitution.

In the spring of 1776 the Virginia Convention of Delegates convened in the colonial capitol of Williamsburg to decide the form of government Virginia should have and the rights its citizens should enjoy. The convention took place at a time when British attempts to tax and regulate the thirteen colonies had generated colonial resistance and a growing desire for political independence.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was largely the product of George Mason, a plantation owner, real estate speculator, and neighbor of George Washington. A strong believer in human liberty and limited government, Mason crafted a document that guaranteed the citizens of Virginia, upon achieving independence from Great Britain, all the civil liberties they had lost under British rule.

In its opening sentence the declaration states that "all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights" which they cannot surrender, "namely, the enjoyment of life, and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." Jefferson's famous phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence was influenced by Mason and John Locke, the English philosopher who first broached the idea of natural and inherent rights in the seventeenth century.

The declaration of rights enumerates specific civil liberties, including Freedom of the Press, the free exercise of religion, and the Injunction that "no man be deprived of his liberty, except by the law of the land or the judgement of his peers." Other provisions include a prohibition against excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishments, the requirements of evidence and good cause before obtaining a Search Warrant to enter a place, the right to trial by jury, and the need for a "well regulated militia" to be "under strict subordination" to the civilian government.

Many of these provisions were incorporated into the Bill of Rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was widely read and won an international reputation as an inspirational document.

Cross-references

"Virginia Declaration of Rights" (Appendix, Primary Document).


Virginia Declaration of Rights

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted by the Virginia colonial constitutional convention on June 12, 1776. Its sixteen sections enumerated specific civil liberties that could not be legitimately taken away by government.

Most of the Declaration of Rights was written by George Mason, a plantation owner, real estate speculator, and neighbor of George Washington. A strong believer in human liberty and limited government, Mason crafted a document that guaranteed the citizens of Virginia, upon achieving independence from Great Britain, all the civil liberties they had lost under British rule.

The Declaration of Rights enumerates specific civil liberties, including freedom of the press, the free exercise of religion, and the injunction that "no man be deprived of his liberty, except by the law of the land or the judgement of his peers." Other provisions prohibited excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishments, required authorities to have evidence and good cause before obtaining a search warrant to enter a place, guaranteed the right to trial by jury, and said that a "well regulated militia" should be "under strict subordination" to the civilian government. Many of these provisions were later incorporated into the Bill of Rights.

Virginia Declaration of Rights

I

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.

II

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.

III

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, whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

Source: Ben Perley Poore, ed., The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the United States, vol. 2 (1878), pp. 1908–1909.

IV

That no man, or set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary.

V

That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judicative; and, that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression by feeling and participating the burthens 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.

VI

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.

VII

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.

VIII

That in all capital or criminal prosecutions a man hath 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 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.

IX

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

X

That general warrants, whereby any 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 be granted.

XI

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.

XII

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

XIII

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.

XIV

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.

XV

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.

XVI

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 towards each other.

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James Madison was instrumental in putting together a Bill of Rights patterned after the Virginia Bill of Rights.

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