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The Virginia Declaration of Rights is a document drafted in 1776 to proclaim the inherent natural rights of men, including the right to rebel against "inadequate" government. It influenced a number of later documents, including the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), the United States Bill of Rights (1789), and the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). The Declaration was adopted unanimously by the Virginia Convention of Delegates on June 12, 1776 as a separate document from the Constitution of Virginia adopted on June 29, 1776.[31770] It was later incorporated within the Virginia State Constitution as Article I, and a slightly updated version may still be seen in Virginia's Constitution, making it legally in effect to this day.

It was initially drafted by George Mason ca. May 20-26, 1776, and later amended by Thomas Ludwell Lee and the Convention to add Section 14 on the Right to uniform government. Mason based his document on the rights of citizens described in earlier works such as the English Bill of Rights (1689), and the Declaration can be considered the first modern Constitutional protection of individual rights for citizens of North America. It rejected the notion of privileged political classes or hereditary offices such as the members of Parliament and House of Lords described in the English Bill of Rights.

The Declaration consists of sixteen articles on the subject of which rights "pertain to [the people of Virginia] the basis and foundation of Government." In addition to affirming the inherent nature of natural rights to life, liberty, and property, the Declaration both describes a view of Government as the servant of the people, and enumerates various restrictions on governmental power. Thus, the document is unusual in that it not only prescribes legal rights, but it also describes moral principles upon which a government should be run.


Articles 1-3 address the subject of rights and the relationship between government and the governed. Article 1 states that "all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which...[they cannot divest;] namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety," a statement later made internationally famous in the first paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, as "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Articles 2 and 3 note the revolutionary concept that "all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people..." and that "whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal." This latter concept effectively asserted the right of the people of Virginia to revolt against the British Empire.

Article 4 asserts the equality of all citizens, rejecting the notion of privileged political classes or hereditary offices - another criticism of British institutions such as the House of Lordsmarker and the privileges of the peerage: "no set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge be hereditary."

Articles 5 and 6 recommend the principles of separation of powers and free elections, "frequent, certain, and regular" of executives and legislators: "That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judicative; and, that the members of the two first...should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally frequent, certain, and regular elections."

Articles 7-16 propose restrictions on the powers of the government, declaring the government should not have the power of suspending or executing laws, "without consent of the representatives of the people,"; establishing the legal rights 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 his vicinage," and to prevent a citizen from being "compelled to give evidence against himself." protections against "cruel and unusual punishments", baseless search and seizure, and the guarantees of a trial by jury, freedom of the press, freedom of religion ("all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion,", and "the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state" rested in a well regulated militia composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, that standing armies in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty;


The following is the complete text of the Virginia Declaration of Rights:


The Virginia Declaration of Rights heavily influenced later documents. Thomas Jefferson is thought to have drawn on it when he drafted the United States Declaration of Independence one month later (July 1776). James Madison was also influenced by the Declaration while drafting the Bill of Rights (completed September 1787, approved 1789), as was the Marquis de Lafayette in voting the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789).

The importance of the Virginia Declaration of Rights is that it was the first constitutional protection of individual rights, rather than protecting just members of Parliament or consisting of simple laws that can be changed as easily as passed.

Quotations derived from the Declaration

  • "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. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" — United States Declaration of Independence (July 1776)


  1. Preamble, Virginia Declaration of Rights.
  2. Article 2
  3. Article 5
  4. Article 7
  5. Article 8
  6. Article 9
  7. Article 10
  8. Article 11
  9. Article 12
  10. Article 16
  11. Article 13

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