Alexandria’s trustee George Mason of Gunston Hall has not received proper due for his remarkable contributions to creating our state and national governments. One of his greatest achievements was creating the Virginia Declaration of Rights which the Virginia Convention adopted on June 12, 1776.
Mason, a member of that Convention, was immediately appointed to a committee charged with organizing a new colonial government. Frustrated by the unproductive arguments of its 31-man committee, he worked alone for nine days at the Raleigh Tavern; then he presented drafts of the Virginia State Constitution and the Virginia Declaration of Rights to the committee. After some revision, the Convention adopted the Declaration — and our first constitution after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
When Thomas Jefferson penned the Continental Congress’ Declaration of Independence, he had access to both Mason’s first draft and final copy of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. He used Mason’s ideas and words freely – but in compressed form with even greater force. For example, Article I of Mason’s document states: “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.” (Jefferson wisely dropped “obtaining”; government cannot provide happiness, only opportunity to pursue it.)
Article 2 declares “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.” (This was a revolutionary idea; previously, kings were acknowledged as God’s designees to rule on earth. Although their powers were increasingly limited, they still held the highest authority. This article asserted that one who opposed the king did not therefore oppose God’s ordained order and become in danger of eternal damnation.)
Article 3 states “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 indefensible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.” (This statement justifies revolution!)
Mason also noted the responsibilities of the people in Article 15 – “... firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue (willingness to put the general interest before one’s own) and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”
Mason’s Declaration was our first founding document to call for recognition of individual liberties like freedom of religion and of the press and other now familiar rights.
Ellen Latane Tabb