The Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason in 1776, was a significant precursor to the United States Declaration of Independence, authored primarily by Thomas Jefferson. The Virginia Declaration of Rights played a pivotal role in shaping the ideas and principles that would later be incorporated into the Declaration of Independence. Here's how it influenced the latter:
Inspiration for Individual Rights: The Virginia Declaration of Rights proclaimed fundamental individual rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These concepts directly influenced Thomas Jefferson when he 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, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." The idea that individuals possess inherent rights that cannot be infringed upon by government was a central theme in both declarations.
Government by Consent: Both declarations emphasized the concept of government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed. The Virginia Declaration of Rights stated that government should be based on the will of the people, and this idea carried over into the Declaration of Independence. The latter declared independence from British rule, arguing that governments derive their powers from the governed and that the American people had withdrawn their consent from British rule.
Right to Alter or Abolish: The Virginia Declaration of Rights asserted that the people have the right to alter or abolish government when it becomes destructive of their rights. The Declaration of Independence echoed this sentiment when it stated that it is the right of the people to "alter or to abolish" a government that becomes tyrannical. The Virginia declaration provided the philosophical basis for the revolutionary idea of overthrowing an oppressive government.
Influence on the Continental Congress: The Virginia Declaration of Rights was widely read and discussed in the American colonies. It played a role in shaping the ideas of many colonial leaders, including those who attended the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson, who was a delegate to the Continental Congress, was well aware of the Virginia declaration's principles and incorporated them into his drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
International Influence: The Virginia Declaration of Rights also had an impact beyond the American colonies. It influenced the drafting of state constitutions and bills of rights, as well as other revolutionary movements around the world. Its emphasis on individual rights and self-determination resonated with people seeking liberty and equality.
In conclusion, the Virginia Declaration of Rights served as a foundational document that articulated key principles of individual rights, consent of the governed, and the right to revolution. It significantly influenced the drafting of the United States Declaration of Independence and, by extension, the formation of the American nation based on democratic principles and the protection of fundamental rights. The close connection between these two declarations underscores their shared commitment to the principles of freedom and self-governance.
Submitted by: Raymond E. Foster