Declaring Essential Rights: Virginia and the U.S. Bill of Rights
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Declaring Essential Rights: Virginia and the U.S. Bill of Rights

October 13, 2019


In changing the Constitution and putting a
new government into effect, Virginians played leading roles, as they had
as far back as the American Revolution. We all remember Patrick Henry’s revolutions
against the Stamp Act back in the 1760s, and his famous “Liberty or Death” speech
in 1775, George Washington’s command of the Continental Army, and Thomas Jefferson’s authorship of
the Declaration of Independence. It’s in the realm of ideas and words
about liberty that Virginians took the lead. They were the most influential all
American revolutionaries for the reasons that they’ve believed that liberty
and expressed their beliefs in powerful and memorable words. In the spring of 1776, when Virginia’s leading politicians realize that the protection of liberty in North America required them to separate
from the English crown and government, they met in Williamsburg. And on the 15th of May, 1776 they adopted a three-part resolution: the first instructed the Virginia
delegates in Congress to introduce resolution for independence; the second created a committee to draft a
declaration of rights that would spell out liberties of Virginians and other Americans who are
fighting for independence, that would express the nature of their
belief in republican government; the third was to draft a new
constitution, or form of government as they call it, for the new, independent Commonwealth of
Virginia. The Declaration of Rights was of fundamental importance. It was the very first declaration of this
kind of North America. It drew upon and relied in part upon
the English Bill of Rights from 1689, adpoted at the end of the
Glorious Revolution. It itemized some of the most essential rights of Virginians that had been put in danger during the imperial crisis that led to
the American Revolution. The language of the Virginia Decoration
of Rights influenced Thomas Jefferson’s language of the Declaration of Independence. These two documents set out the nature of America’s experiment in
liberty that began with the opening of the American Revolution. That all men are created equal, they have life right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. and in the Virginia Declaration of Rights as amended in its final stages of adoption in June 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights did
something revolutionary in and of itself– declared that all men had the right to the
free exercise of religion. That began a long process in Virginia of disentangling the relationship
between the Church of England and the government of Virginia. Prior to that time, the Church of England was the
established church. That means that the Church and the
government were part of each other. The General Assembly passed laws
regulating the church, and church attendance was required by
people who held public office. Beginning with that language in the last clause of the Virginia Declaration
of Rights, that offered full religious liberty, Virginians who were not members of the
Church of England led by Baptists and Presbyterians began a
decade-long campaign to disestablish the Church, to… sever or break the links between church
and state, culminating in January of 1786
with the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. another of Thomas Jefferson’s famous documents. It effectively is disestablished the Church–
took away all of the uh… legal support from the Church and made the Church of England in Virginia equivalent to the Baptist church or the
Presbyterian church or the Lutheran church– an entirely private organization that
had no support from the government and did not rely on
the government in any way and was not under the direction of
the government any way. That would probably be the most revolutionary
thing that the Virginians did during the entire period between the end of the French and Indian War and the passage of the Stamp Act and the adoption of the United States Bill
of Rights and in ’91. Virginians were at the heart of this
business. As John Adams said at the very beginning, the Virginia Bill of Rights became a source from which other states drew when they passed their own bills of
rights during the period of the American Revolution. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was also one
of the sources on which James Madison drew in 1789, when
as a member of the first congress, he introduced amendments to the United
States Constitution, that Congress then revised and refashioned and renumbered and
then submitted to the states– what became the United States Bill of Rights: freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, right the trial by jury, the whole budget of rights that are
in the Virginia Bill of Rights. At their first and some of the most
powerful expressions in Virginia, the Declaration of Rights was emulated throughout the United
States and France, it was published in French very soon after it was
published in English for the first time, and was a fundamentally important
statement–the first of its kind. When Virginians such as George Mason,
who drafted both the Declaration of Rights and the first Virginia Constitution, looked at the Constitution that James
Madison proposed and that Edmund Randolph introduced to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, they saw the potential for a too-strong
federal government that would over-power the states, or woudl endanger the local or
individual liberties that they had recently fought the Revolution to preserve. In the Virginia ratification convention in 1788, in particular, Patrick Henry, George Mason, William Grayson, and other opponents of ratification of the
Constitution singled out in particular for criticism the lack of a Bill of Rights in the
Constitution. Now its true that Madison and many of
the other supporters of the Constitution initially argued that the Bill of Rights or Amendments to the Constitution were
not necessary because the United States Constitution envisioned a government
of strictly limited powers. However, he realized because of the
intensity of the opposition of Patrick Henry, and George Mason and the other
“Anti-federalists” as they were called, Madison realized that the new constitution would have little chance to
succeed if the apprehensions of those people could not be set-aside. So, in the
following year in November, when he was a member of the first Congress,
Madison introduced the resolutions that became the Bill of
Rights in order to give the new government a time to work, and under the protection of the Bill of
Rights to indicate that the new government was
not so dangerous to liberty as some of the older revolutionary generation had once feared. In using the “Shaping the Constitution” documents, the Library of Virginia and
Library of Congress hope that you will be able to see how this
language of liberty evolved from specific event that took place in England and in North America, and the
response of the revolutionary patriots to those events. Their decorations, their
language, their hopes, their fears– all became expressed in powerful language
that we all remember: the language of liberty that forms the
foundation stone of American government and that we see culminating in the adoption in 1791 of the Bill of Rights to the
United States Constitution.

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  1. Since the category is "Education", a kind attempt at addressing the public (and taking their learning needs into consideration) instead of quickly reading through a text, however accurate and insightful in itself, would be most welcome by interested viewers. Thank you for your efforts

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