Declaring Rights in Virginia in 1776

The year 1776 is auspicious for the United States because that’s when we became the United States. Most of our attention in commemorating that event centers on the Declaration of Independence, and rightly so. I’ll have something to say about that document in a post next month.

Another document, which was at Thomas Jefferson’s elbow when writing the Declaration, came out of his home state of Virginia a month earlier, but far too many of our citizens are ignorant of it.

George Mason, along with other key leaders in Virginia who were fashioning the new government there in anticipation of independence, created the Virginia Declaration of Rights as a bold statement of the limits of civil government.

This Declaration made clear the following concepts:

  • Inherent rights (meaning those given by God) cannot be surrendered to the government.
  • Government derives its power from the people, who set its limits.
  • Oppressive government may be altered or abolished.
  • The branches of government must be separated to avoid tyranny.
  • The society operates on due process of law.
  • There will be no excessive bail or fines and no cruel or unusual punishments meted out by government (wording later to be included in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution).
  • No general search warrants were to be allowed (there must be specific cause for a search—anything else is an invasion of a person’s property).
  • Freedom of the press should not be restrained.
  • A militia of the people is a guarantor of liberty.

Sections 15 and 16 of this Declaration are worth quoting in full. Principles and character are the subject of section 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.

Notice how the Founding generation focused on the significance of the character of its citizens. The consensus at the time was that a free government would fail without fundamental principles and without a people willing to exhibit those key character traits mentioned in the document.

Then there is section 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 towards each other.

This is a clarion call for recognizing that civil government cannot dictate what an individual is required to believe. That’s between each individual and God. We should be free to follow our consciences. This statement comes fifteen years before the same concept was applied nationally in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Another interesting aspect of this section is how it ends: it calls for Christian forbearance, love, and charity for all. The inclusion of the word “Christian” is another testimony to the consensus of the era. The Founders saw Christian faith as the bedrock of society even as they allowed everyone to have their own liberty of conscience.

In my view, Biblical principles are the foundation of everything that is good in the governmental institutions established in America. That’s why I labor to reintroduce them to this current generation. Ignorance of that fact and rejection of those principles are the reasons we are witnessing the slow decay of our culture and the various dysfunctions of our governments.

More from the Virginia Declaration of Rights

Yesterday I highlighted some of the key concepts in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason in 1776. Mason also included some interesting phrases in that Declaration. When you get to the end of it, he offers some memorable comments.

For instance, Section 15 says, “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.”

I like that one. Why? First, it concentrates on character. Mason is saying that liberty is not automatic; rather, to achieve it and to maintain it, the people must have certain character qualities. Second, he refers to fundamental principles. The only way to stay on course is to remember the basic truths that govern the universe. Too many politicians—and the general public—today don’t even think about principles. They seek political advantage, not truth.

He then added Section 16, which states, “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 towards each other.”

This section is a recognition that a state-approved religion is unacceptable. Civil government has no business setting up an official religion that all people must follow. Our relationship to God is outside the purview of state power. We must follow our conscience in that relationship, and no one else can be our conscience on that matter. Now some may think Mason was pushing for religion to be removed from the public square, but that was never his intent. Notice the final part: each person has a duty to practice “Christian” love toward others. Mason fully expected that Christianity would be the bedrock faith of the nation, and he expected individuals to act like Christians in their relations to others.

As I said in yesterday’s post, these Founders understood government. I’ll add this today: they understood it better than most of our current crop of legislators, executives, and judges. When I was working on my doctoral degree in history, I was always amazed by the attitude of professors who believed that we know so much more than people from 200 years ago.

No, we don’t.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights

This month commemorates the writing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, largely the effort of a neighbor of George Washington’s. While Washington was trying to piece together a continental army in 1776, others were busily constructing constitutions for the states that were ready to break from Britain.

That neighbor was George Mason. Drawing on a rich British heritage as well as newer developments in the colonies, Mason concocted a list of rights that set a standard for the era. Thomas Jefferson, up in Philadelphia at that time working on a declaration of independence, looked to Mason as one of his inspirations, and was receiving information from the Virginia convention that was finalizing the new Virginia constitution.

What did Mason include in his Declaration of Rights? He clearly spelled out:

  • Inherent rights cannot be surrendered by any compact
  • Government power derives from the people
  • Oppressive government may be altered or abolished
  • The branches of government need to be separated
  • It is essential that there be due process of law and jury trials
  • No excessive bail or fines
  • No cruel or unusual punishments
  • No general search warrants [meaning the government cannot simply ransack one’s home looking for whatever]
  • Freedom of the press will not be restrained
  • A militia is essential to liberty

Some of these might look familiar. As I said, Jefferson drew from them, and the Bill of Rights that was later added to the Federal Constitution mirrored some of these concepts.

These were not backward people. They understood what makes government work and what constitutes tyranny. We should continue to study them and learn from them.