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June 24, 1788

September 13, 2021 - 4 minute read


George Mason

Violation of the “rights of Englishmen” by the British monarch and Parliament prompted opposition and outrage decades before the north American colonies declared independence in July 1776. Until that momentous declaration, Americans considered themselves Englishmen, governed and protected by English law. When the colonies severed their relationships with the British they were immediately confronted with the necessity of establishing new governments and did so by drafting new State constitutions.

For many of the newly independent States, restoring and retaining rights violated by the British was as urgent as erecting new structures and processes of government. This was abundantly evident in Virginia when, on May 6, 1776, more than a month before independence was declared by the Continental Congress, the 5th Virginia Convention called for a committee to draft “a Declaration of Rights” and “plan of government most likely to maintain peace and order in this colony, and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people.” George Mason, Patrick Henry, and James Madison were members of a committee of thirty men to accomplish this task.

Mason was selected to write the first draft which he presented to the committee on May 24. Unanimously approved by the Virginia Convention on June 12, it provided, in part, that:

  • All power is vested in and derived from the people.
  • Whenever government acts contrary to the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, the majority of the people have an “inalienable right to reform, alter or abolish it.”
  • Government should be separated into legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
  • Those accused of crimes have the right to know the cause of the accusation; confront accusers; be tried by an impartial jury and afforded a speedy trial; and not be required to testify against oneself nor “be deprived of liberty except by the law of the land or the judgement of his peers.”
  • Excessive bail and excessive fines shall not be imposed, and no cruel and unusual punishments shall be inflicted.
  • Freedom of the press “can never be restrained by despotic governments.”
  • A “well-regulated militia, trained to arms” should be maintained.
  • All men “are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.”

Even to a casual observer of American history, the influence of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is obvious. Twelve years later, on June 9, 1788, Mason forwarded to John Lamb, Chairman of the anti-Constitution Federal Republican Committee of New York, amendments to the Constitution he and a like-minded faction of delegates to the Virginia ratifying convention planned to propose. In fact, they were ready to collaborate with “Antis” in New York and other States to secure amendments.

Mason’s proposals included and expanded on those approved by the Virginia Convention in 1776, but in 1788 he added the rights of freedom of speech and the press, as well as the rights to peaceably assemble, petition the legislature for the redress of grievances, keep and bear arms, and be free from having soldiers quartered in private homes without consent. Finally, he proposed changes in the actual structure and processes of government proposed in the Constitution, including provisions pertaining to the number of members of the House of Representatives; regulation of national elections; imposition of direct taxes; an executive council to select the President; and numerous others.

On Monday, June 23, the Virginia ratifying convention reconvened after its one-day recess. By the end of the day, delegates had completed their examination of the Constitution. The State legislature had been scheduled to open its session the same day and Patrick Henry and his allies hoped it would force adjournment of the convention. To Henry’s dismay, however, the legislature decided to meet in short sessions in the morning and permit the convention to continue its work in truncated afternoon sessions.

The outcome remained uncertain, but all agreed that the final vote on ratification would be very close as opposition remained strong in the Kentucky region of Virginia. In fact, some observers believed the future of the United States hinged on the votes of Kentuckians.

The next day, June 24, George Wythe, wielding the gavel as presiding officer of the convention, moved that it ratify the Constitution and that amendments be forwarded to the first Federal Congress for its consideration. Outraged, Henry was nevertheless prepared to offer an alternative – that amendments be presented to the other States for consideration before ratification. He then dramatically threatened that If the convention chose to ratify without previous amendments, he would “go home” and “act as I think my duty requires.”

Edmund Randolph’s response teemed with incredulity. Henry’s plan would “keep Virginia out of the Union.” Dissolution of the union itself would result and “the dogs of war” would break out. “Anarchy and discord” would complete “the ruin of the union.” James Madison and William Grayson weighed in on opposite sides of the debate, but Henry, at his rhetorical best, dominated the stage and proclaimed that “all nations” were watching their deliberations. “We have it in our power,” he declared, “to secure the happiness of one half of the human race.” Adoption of the Constitution,“ he warned, “may involve the misery of the other hemisphere.” Then, according to the convention’s official records, “Here a violent storm arose which put the house in such disorder that Mr. Henry was obliged to conclude.”

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