This week (June 12) in 1776, the Virginia Convention, which had assembled in Williamsburg, Va., to draft a state constitution, unanimously adopted as part of that constitution a Declaration of Rights, written primarily by George Mason, one of our most underrated Founding Fathers.
How underrated? In Mason’s Declaration of Rights are language, rights and principles that would later show up, practically verbatim, in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and James Madison’s draft of our Bill of Rights.
For example, George Mason began his Declaration, “All men are created equally free and independent and have certain inherent natural 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.”
There is no doubt that Jefferson, who in June of 1776 was at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, read Mason’s declaration. It was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette (widely distributed in Philadelphia) right after its adoption, and couriers were regularly riding between Williamsburg and Philadelphia with news of each assembly. Thus when Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … ” he had Mason’s words, published a week or so earlier, fresh in his mind.
In addition, Mason’s Declaration spells out certain “natural rights”—many of which are quite similar to those in our Bill of Rights. Take Mason’s assertion that “no part of a Man’s property can be taken from him, or applied to public uses, without the Consent of himself, or his legal Representatives.” Madison’s Fifth Amendment in the Bill if Rights reads, “No person … shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Mason also wrote that citizens are protected against self incrimination and have the right to a speedy jury trial. Madison’s Fifth Amendment also protects a citizen from being “a witness against himself,” while the Sixth Amendment guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” Mason also wrote, “Excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Madison’s Eighth Amendment changed “ought not to be” to “shall not be.”
Again, there is no doubt that Madison knew of Mason’s Declaration—indeed, he was a member of the Virginia Convention. There is also no doubt that Mason, in turn, was influenced by others, especially the English philosopher John Locke.
But the point remains—Mason, as a Founding Father, is both underrated and too often overlooked. Of that, there is also no doubt.