The Virginia Declaration of Rights

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 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"

On May 15, 1776, the Virginia Convention "resolved unanimously that the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states . . . [and] that a committee be appointed to prepare a DECLARATION OF RIGHTS and . . . plan of government." R. H. Lee's resolution of June 7, 1776, implemented the first of these resolutions and precipitated the appointment of the committee to draw up the Declaration of Independence; the second proposal was carried out by the framing of Virginia's first state constitution, of which this declaration was an integral part. It is notable for containing an authoritative definition of the term militia in Section 13.

As passed, the Virginia Declaration was largely the work of George Mason; the committee and the Convention made some verbal changes and added Sections 10 and 14. This declaration served as a model for bills of rights in several other state constitutions and was a source of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, though its degree of influence upon the latter document is a highly controversial question. The reference to "property" in Section I may be compared with the use of the word by John Locke, its omission by Thomas Jefferson from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, and its use in the Constitution, Amendments V and XIV.

George Mason (1725-92), one of Virginia's wealthiest planters, a neighbor and friend of Washington, is best remembered for his part in drafting the Virginia constitution of 1776. In 1787 he was a leader in the Federal Convention. Refusing to sign the completed document, Mason, along with Patrick Henry and others, opposed its ratification in the Virginia Convention of 1788.

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.”

— Virginia Declaration of Rights