245th Anniversary of the Virginia Declaration of Rights

Mason's role in promoting rights for some over others

by George Oberle and Jessica Clark

245th Anniversary of the Virginia Declaration of Rights
From the Virginia Gazette, 1776, Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Printed Ephemera Collection

On this day: the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason, was ratified by the Virginia Constitutional Convention of June 12, 1776. This significant document is often noted for its influence on the Declaration of Independence and as the basis of the Bill of Rights. 

The opening statement, that the Declaration of Rights “is 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 of government” was, however, limited to a certain group of people. Not all people of Virginia were represented at the Convention. 

Among the twelve enumerated rights in Mason’s May 1776 draft the first stands out as a call to the universal liberties of humanity. The document made bold claims that “all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain rights” which could not be taken away by any government. These “inherent rights” were endowed in nature and included the “enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property[1], and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

However, when Mason and his fellow representatives at the convention realized the inclusivity of these rights, they agreed to add a caveat stating that those inherent rights were only applied to men “when they enter into a state of society.” This important modification in the 12 June 1776 final draft limited the universal nature of the statement so that this now well-known, oft-repeated phrase did not apply to enslaved men, women, and children who were viewed as property; to indentured servants; to indigenous people; or to other segments of “the free,” such as white women. “All men” often meant those of a certain class, gender, and socioeconomic status.

Over the centuries since the drafting of these rights and the founding of our nation, countless people have fought to make these rights truly available and applicable to all. We recognize today both George Mason’s contributions to and hindrances of these efforts.[2]

 


[1] It cannot be overlooked that these protections and rights assigned to owning “property” were safeguarding the rights of men, like Mason, to own other people and reap the economic rewards of the labor of the enslaved.

[2] The directors of the Center for Mason Legacies are currently working on a project considering and addressing all of the people deeply impacted by this statement of George Mason IV.