The Virginia Declaration of Rights is a document drafted in 1776 to proclaim the inherent natural rights of men, including the right to rebel against “inadequate” government. It influenced a number of later documents, including the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), the United States Bill of Rights (1789), and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). The Declaration was adopted unanimously by the Virginia Convention of Delegates on June 12, 1776 as a separate document from the Constitution of Virginia adopted on June 29, 1776. It was later incorporated within the Virginia State Constitution as Article I, and a slightly updated version may still be seen in Virginia’s Constitution, making it legally in effect to this day.
It was initially drafted by George Mason ca. May 20-26 1776; James Madison assisted him with the section on religious freedom. It was later amended by Thomas Ludwell Lee and the Convention to add Section 14 on the Right to uniform government. Mason based his document on the rights of citizens described in earlier works such as the English Bill of Rights (1689), and the Declaration can be considered the first modern Constitutional protection of individual rights for citizens of North America. It rejected the notion of privileged political classes or hereditary offices such as the members of Parliament and House of Lords described in the English Bill of Rights.
The Declaration consists of sixteen articles on the subject of which rights “pertain to [the people of Virginia]…as the basis and foundation of Government.” In addition to affirming the inherent nature of natural rights to life, liberty, and property, the Declaration both describes a view of Government as the servant of the people, and enumerates various restrictions on governmental power. Thus, the document is unusual in that it not only prescribes legal rights, but it also describes moral principles upon which a government should be run.
Articles 1-3 address the subject of rights and the relationship between government and the governed. Article 1 states that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which…[they cannot divest;] namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety,” a statement later made internationally famous in the first paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, as “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Articles 2 and 3 note the revolutionary concept that “all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people…” 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.” This latter concept effectively asserted the right of the people of Virginia to revolt against the British Empire.
Article 4 asserts the equality of all citizens, rejecting the notion of privileged political classes or hereditary offices – another criticism of British institutions such as the House of Lords and the privileges of the peerage: “no 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 be hereditary.”
Articles 5 and 6 recommend the principles of separation of powers and free elections, “frequent, certain, and regular” of executives and legislators: “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…should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken…by frequent, certain, and regular elections.”
Articles 7-16 propose restrictions on the powers of the government, declaring the government should not have the power of suspending or executing laws, “without consent of the representatives of the people,”; establishing the legal rights 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,” and to prevent a citizen from being “compelled to give evidence against himself.” protections against “cruel and unusual punishments”, baseless search and seizure, and the guarantees of a trial by jury, freedom of the press, freedom of religion (“all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion,”, and “the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state” rested in a well regulated militia composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, that standing armies in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty.
The following is the complete text of the 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.
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 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 judgement 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 to 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 be 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 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.
Adopted unanimously June 12, 1776 Virginia Convention of Delegates drafted by Mr. George Mason