The Virginia Declaration of Rights, a call for American independence from Britain, was drafted by George Mason Mason IV of Gunston Hall in May 1776 and amended by Thomas Ludwell Lee and the Virginia Convention. Thomas Jefferson drew heavily from this document when drafting the Declaration of Independence one month later. The Declaration was also used by James Madison in drawing up the Bill of Rights (1789) and the Marquis de Lafayette in drafting the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789).
The Declaration was adopted unanimously by the Fifth Virginia Convention on June 12, 1776, as a separate document from the Constitution of Virginia which was adopted on June 29, 1776. A slightly updated version remains in Virginia's Constitution.
Mason based his initial draft on the rights of citizens noted in earlier works such as the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the writings of John Locke. The Virginian wrote that "all men are born equally free and independant [sic], and have certain inherent natural rights, … among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursueing [sic] and obtaining Happiness and Safety."
The Declaration describes a view of Government as the servant of the people and makes a separation of powers into administrative, legislative, and judicial. It is unusual because it not only prescribes legal rights but also describes moral principles upon which a government should be run.
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.
As we observe the Sesquicentennial of the War Between the States, we may note another important application of the Declaration in our history. Virginia's western counties cited it as a justification for rejecting the Ordinance of Secession. Delegates to the Wheeling Convention argued that under the Declaration of Rights, any change in the form of government had to be approved by a referendum. Since the Secession Convention had not been convened by referendum, all of its acts were void. This assertion started the chain of events that resulted in the western counties breaking off to become the state of West Virginia which was loyal to the Union.
Ellen Latane Tabb