June 12, 1776 – Virginia Unanimously Adopts The Declaration of Rights, Forerunner to the U.S. Declaration of Independence

On this day in history, at the Fifth Virginia Convention at Williamsburg, Virginia unanimously adopted The Declaration of Rights for the State of Virginia, which then appeared in the papers just as Jefferson was working on his draft of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The Virginia Declaration was mostly written by George Mason, a fourth generation Virginian. (James Madison assisted Mason with the section on religious freedom, and other members of the convention added small edits.)

George Mason

George Mason

Inspired by the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, among others, Mason asserted, “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights….among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” 

This document was the first in America to call for freedom of the press, tolerance of religion, proscription of unreasonable searches, and the right to a fair and speedy trial.

In 1787, Mason attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  He was distressed over the amount of power being given to the federal government, the Convention’s unwillingness to abolish the slave trade, and its lack of acceptance of a bill of rights to preface the new Constitution. He therefore refused to sign the document. One of three dissenters, Mason’s lack of support for the new Constitution made him unpopular and destroyed his friendship with George Washington, who later referred to Mason as his former friend.

But Mason’s ideas were widely accepted, and at the first session of the U.S. Congress, James Madison introduced a Bill of Rights that echoed the Virginia Declaration.

You can read the full text of the Virginia Declaration of Rights here.

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