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Virginia Declaration of Rights

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Statement of rights adopted by the colony of Virginia in 1776, which served as the model for the U.S. Constitution's BILL OF RIGHTS.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights is an important document in U.S. constitutional history. Adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention on June 12, 1776, its sixteen sections enumerated specific civil liberties that government could not legitimately take away. The declaration was adopted during the last months of British colonial rule. THOMAS JEFFERSON used parts of it in the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, and it later served as a model for the Bill of Rights that was added to the U.S. Constitution.

In the spring of 1776 the Virginia Convention of Delegates convened in the colonial capitol of Williamsburg to decide the form of government Virginia should have and the rights its citizens should enjoy. The convention took place at a time when British attempts to tax and regulate the thirteen colonies had generated colonial resistance and a growing desire for political independence.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was largely the product of GEORGE MASON, a plantation owner, real estate speculator, and neighbor of GEORGE WASHINGTON. A strong believer in human liberty and limited government, Mason crafted a document that guaranteed the citizens of Virginia, upon achieving independence from Great Britain, all the civil liberties they had lost under British rule.

In its opening sentence the declaration states that "all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights" which they cannot surrender, "namely, the enjoyment of life, and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." Jefferson's famous phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence was influenced by Mason and JOHN LOCKE, the English philosopher who first broached the idea of natural and inherent rights in the seventeenth century.

The declaration of rights enumerates specific civil liberties, including FREEDOM OF THE PRESS, the free exercise of religion, and the INJUNCTION that "no man be deprived of his liberty, except by the law of the land or the judgement of his peers." Other provisions include a prohibition against excessive bail or CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS, the requirements of evidence and good cause before obtaining a SEARCH WARRANT to enter a place, the right to trial by jury, and the need for a "well regulated militia" to be "under strict subordination" to the civilian government.

Many of these provisions were incorporated into the Bill of Rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was widely read and won an international reputation as an inspirational document.

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