THE VIRGINIA DECLARATION OF RIGHTS 1
[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.]
A declaration of rights 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
SECTION 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.
SEC. 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.
SEC. 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 hath
an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or
abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public
SEC. 4. 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.
SEC. 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 wh ich all, or
any part, of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as
the laws shall direct.
SEC. 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.
SEC. 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.
SEC. 8. 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
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.
SEC. 9. That excessive bail
ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and
unusual punishments inflicted.
SEC. 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
SEC. 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.
SEC. 12. That the freedom of the
press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained
but by despotic governments.
SEC. 13. That a well-regulated
militia, or 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.
SEC. 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.
SEC. 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.
SEC. 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
1. The Federal
and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters . . . , ed. F. N. Thorpe
(Washington, 1909), VII, 3812-14
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