Remembering George Mason and the Virginia Declaration of Rights

Every July 4, Americans throw themselves a party to celebrate our Independence Day. But while the date is heavy on flags, fireworks, and red, white and blue-themed BBQ, understanding the reasons why America’s founding is uniquely worthy of celebration often gets little attention. However, rather than bypassing the principles and ideals involved in order to move directly to celebrations, we would be well-served by giving June 12 a little more thought, as well.

That was the day the Virginia Declaration of Rights, penned by George Mason, was ratified by the Fifth Virginia Convention in 1776. And it has pride of place as the first of several declarations of rights in the era — weeks before the Declaration of Independence and well before our Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

Mason’s defense of individual rights as “the basis and foundation of government,” which the Marquis de Condorcet called “the first Bill of Rights to merit the name,” and an updated version of which is still in effect in Virginia, profoundly influenced both our Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights — our rationale for liberty and the limitations on government designed to protect that liberty in practice — deserves more attention. Clinton Rossiter called it “among the world’s most memorable triumphs in applied political theory.” Charles Maynes wrote that,

Mason’s revolutionary step was…reversing, in writing and in a supreme governmental document, the traditional relationship between citizen and state. Throughout history it had been the citizen who owed duties to the state, which in turn might bestow certain rights on the citizen…Mason argued that the state had to observe certain citizens’ rights that could not be violated under any circumstances. Mason thus set the United States apart from past constitutional practices.

From Declaration of Rights to Declaration of Independence

It is clear that Thomas Jefferson had access to the Virginia Bill of Rights in drafting the Declaration of Independence. He was asked to write a draft on June 11, and probably didn’t begin writing until June 12, the day the Virginia Bill of Rights was approved. The draft text had also been published in different newspapers on June 6, 8, and 12. And then there are the close parallels between the two.

One cannot read the central second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence without hearing echoes of Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. That is why it is no wonder Jefferson, who called Mason “the wisest man of his generation,” wrote in an 1823 letter that, “I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before.” Consider the most striking examples.

Section 1: That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, or 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…And that when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to those principles, 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 6: Men…cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent or that of their representatives so elected, not bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented.

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.

From Declaration of Rights to Bill of Rights

As clear as the connections of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights to the Declaration of Independence are, those connecting it to the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, are even stronger. As Raymond Polin wrote, “we may regard the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and especially Amendments XIII, XIV, XV, and XIX, as ‘necessary’ to implementation of the ideas stated in the Declaration.”

Polin points out that the original articles of the Constitution dealing with separation of branches, republican government and regular elections to legislative and executive offices also reflect Mason’s earlier work. But even more important, as he put it, “provisions that are present in the First Ten Amendments are contained in the Virginia Bill of Rights as well, at times in the very same words,” including Amendments 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8. But the process of getting to that point was far from smooth.

Bills or declarations of rights became popular after the Declaration of Independence. They were adopted in some form by five colonies in 1776, and in every state by 1783. However, the Constitutional Convention did not adopt one. As a result, Mason was one of only three delegates to the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the final document, most importantly because, “there is no Declaration of Rights, and the laws of the general government being paramount to the laws and constitution of the several states, the Declaration of Rights in the separate states are no security.” But his refusal to sign, the objections he offered, and his opposition to ratification without a bill of rights, while causing no small contention, were seminal in creating the Bill of Rights, which Raymond Polin called “the capstone of American constitutionalism,” in 1791.

Because of his recognition that rights did not originate from government, but that liberty instead requires tight constraints on government, George Mason deserves more attention. After all, according to Jeff Broadwater, to the founding generation, “only Washington ranked higher in public esteem.” In Robert Rutland’s words, “His ideas became permeating facts” at America’s founding. They need to again permeate Americans’ political thoughts if we are to revive the liberty he helped create.

George Mason ideas and words were far more influential at America’s founding than in American’s minds today. He saw what government must avoid as more central than what it must do if it is to actually advance our welfare and tried his best to implement that vision, in full recognition of the dangers faced. As he put it,

Happiness and prosperity are now within our reach; but to attain and preserve them must depend upon our own wisdom and virtue…Frequent interference with private property and contracts, retrospective laws destructive of all public faith, as well as confidence between man and man, and flagrant violations of the Constitution must disgust the best and wisest part of the community, occasion a general depravity of manners, bring the legislature into contempt, and finally produce anarchy and public convulsion.

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