George Mason and the Virginia Declaration of Rights

George Mason, future patriot, spent part of his childhood in Stafford County. His father died by drowning when the boy was very young, so he sometimes stayed with relatives, including his uncle, John Mercer who lived at Marlborough Point. His uncle was a lawyer and landowner. He had a large library for the time—more than 1,500 books—and 11-year-old George enjoyed the library, including law commentaries his uncle had written. 

After studying at a private school in Maryland and with tutors (including his uncle), George Mason took control of his family’s lands. He was the second largest landowner in Fairfax County—the largest being George Washington. When Washington went to serve as head of the Continental Army, George Mason took his place in the Virginia legislature. 

As the Revolution got underway in 1776, he attended the Virginia Convention and drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights—an important document that inspired the later Bill of Rights that was attached to the Constitution. Without certain guaranteed rights, George Mason doubted the Constitution did enough to make sure the new country would stay on a good course and be protected from too much central government. He also drafted Virginia’s first constitution. 

George Mason was one of many trying to change his world in 1776. Section 16 of the Virginia Declaration, for example, is based on the practice that, in colonial Virginia, there was only one official religion—the Church of England—and Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, and others might be fined or thrown in jail depending on how they differed in their way of worship from the official church. George Mason, along with other Virginians, wanted to change that. 

Additionally, local office holders in Virginia (such as sheriffs) were not elected—they were chosen by their powerful friends within the legislature, and they were able to make a good profit in their office and share those profits with their friends. The system was prone to corruption. It did not represent the will of the people who, according to Mason, had the right to the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Here is the text of the Virginia Declaration of Rights:

A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS 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.

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. 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.

Section 3. 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, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

Section 4. That no man, or set of men, is entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, nor being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary.

Section 5. That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judiciary; and that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burdens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections, in which all, or any part, of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws shall direct.

Section 6. That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly ought to be free; and that all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assembled for the public good.

Section 7. That all power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws, by any authority, without consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights and ought not to be exercised.

Section 8. That in all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.

Section 9. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Section 10. That general warrants, whereby an officer or messenger may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of a fact committed, or to seize any person or persons not named, or whose offense is not particularly described and supported by evidence, are grievous and oppressive and ought not to be granted.

Section 11. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other and ought to be held sacred.

Section 12. That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.

Section 13. That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

Section 14. That the people have a right to uniform government; and, therefore, that no government separate from or independent of the government of Virginia ought to be erected or established within the limits thereof.

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.

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 practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

George Mason went on to be a leading speaker at the national Constitutional Convention, and he spoke against ratification of the Constitution until it had a Bill of Rights, similar to the Virginia Declaration, attached to it. His initial opposition may have cost him his friendship with his neighbor George Washington, but George Mason was determined to limit the power of the federal government. He did not want the same kind of strong and, to his mind, tyrannical government the colonies had known to lead the new nation away from their “firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and … frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

More to Learn in the Library

Although CRRL has no biographies on George Mason specifically written for young people, we do have several that are available in our adult collection.

Online articles for CRRL card holders
Check these databases from your home computer for high-quality articles on George Mason and the Virginia Declaration of Rights: Biography in Context, Encyclopaedia Britannica (kids’ or adult version), Kids InfoBits, and Explora / Explora Middle School. For more advanced articles, try the JSTOR database.

On the Web

The George Mason Memorial
George Mason’s part in creating our form of government has been honored with a statue and exhibit in Washington, D.C.

George Mason, the Man
The school of law at the university that is named for him has some information on why he is considered to be a very important patriot.

Gunston Hall: George Mason
Gunston Hall, the impressive Georgian house owned and built by Mason is open for tours to the public. The website has much useful information, including details on his views about slavery. He thought it a terrible institution and wanted the slave trade stopped…but he did not free his own slaves.

Virginia Memory: Shaping the Constitution: George Mason
The Library of Virginia’s online exhibit has information on Mason’s public and private life. It also has a section on Virginia’s debate over the ratification of the Constitution.