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On May 15, 1776, the fifth Virginia Convention told its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to “be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or parliament of Great Britain.”
On the same day, the Congress adopted recommended to the assemblies and popular conventions in the colonies to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.”
John Adams called this measure “independence itself.” Adams added a radical preamble for self-government that “every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies.”
The Virginia Convention followed Congress’ exhortation to adopt a new constitution and appointed a committee to draft it, and a Declaration of Rights. The constitution was the framework of government. The declaration was, in the words of Edmund Randolph, “In all the revolutions of time, of human opinion, and of government, a perpetual standard…around which the people might rally and by a notorious record be forever admonished to be watchful, firm, and virtuous.”
The convention adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights on June 13. George Mason was its primary draftsman. He began with a stunning assertion of natural rights.
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which…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.”
The declaration was deeply influenced by the thinking of John Locke. It stated that “all power was vested in” the sovereign people, and the representative government was established to protect their rights. When it became destructive of these ends, the majority had the “indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible” right to alter or abolish it. Its influence on the Declaration of Independence was unmistakable.
The declaration included several core principles fundamental to the American experiment in liberty: free elections, separation of powers, trial by jury, rights of the accused. The freedom of the press was called “one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” Finally, the declaration protected freedom of conscience as a natural right. “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” it asserted.
In Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson was busy with the work of drafting the Declaration of Independence and regretted not being part of the Virginia Convention. He drafted a constitution for the convention, but submitted it too late for it to be considered by the delegates.
On June 29, the convention adopted a constitution guided by revolutionary principles. The different branches of government were separated and consisted of a bicameral General Assembly, an executive, and judiciary. The House of Delegates was the most representative of the people and were elected annually. The two houses of the legislature voted for the governor and curtailed the power of the executive who was elected annually and could not serve more than three terms consecutively. The principles of 1776 and great suspicion of executive power because of the experience under the king and his royal governors underpinned the weakening of executive power.
The Virginia Constitution was one of the first modern constitutions and represented the republican and revolutionary principles of 1776. The state constitutions created republican governments and helped shape the experiences and principles that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.
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