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Chapter 64:

Virginia Proclaims the rights of man.

May—June, 1776.

on the sixth day of May forty-five members of
Chap. LXIV.} 1776. May.
the house of burgesses of Virginia, met at the capitolin Williamsburg pursuant to their adjournment; but as they were of the opinion that the ancient constitution had been subverted by the king and parliament of Great Britain, they dissolved themselves unanimously, and thus the last vestige of the king's authority passed away.

The delegates of Virginia, who on the same morning assembled in convention, were a constituent and an executive assembly. They represented the oldest and the largest colony, whose institutions had been fashioned on the model recommended by Bacon, and whose inhabitants for nearly a hundred and seventy years had been eminently loyal, and had sustained the church of England as the establishment of the land.

Its people, having in their origin a perceptible but never an exclusive influence of the cavaliers, had sprung [374] mainly from adventurers, who were not fugitives for

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conscience' sake, or sufferers from persecution, or passionate partisans of monarchy. The population had been recruited by successive infusions of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians; Huguenots, and the descendants of Huguenots; men who had been so attached to Cromwell or to the republic, that they preferred to emigrate on the return of Charles the Second; Baptists, and other dissenters; and in the valley of Virginia there was already a very large German population. Beside all these, there was the great body of the backwoodsmen, rovers from Maryland and Pennsylvania, not caring much for the record of their lineage.

The territory for which the convention was to act was not a limited one like that of Sparta or Attica; beginning at the ocean, it comprised the great bay of the Chesapeake, with its central and southern tributaries; the beautiful valleys on the head springs of the Roanoke and along the whole course of the Shenandoah; the country beyond the mountains, including the sources of the Monongahela and the Cumberland river, and extending indefinitely to the Tennessee and beyond it. Nor that only; Virginia insisted that its jurisdiction stretched without bounds over all the country west and northwest of a line two hundred miles north of Old Point Comfort, not granted to others by royal charters; and there was no one to dispute a large part of this claim except the province of Quebec under an act of parliament which the continental congress had annulled. For all this wide region, rich in soil, precious minerals, healing springs, forests, convenient marts for foreign commerce, the great pathways to the west, more fertile, more spacious [375] than all Greece, Italy, and Great Britain, than

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any region for which it had ever been proposed to establish republican liberty, a constitution was to be framed.

It has been discussed, whether the spirit that now prevailed was derived from cavaliers, and whether it sprung from the inhabitants on tide water, or was due to those of the uplands; the answer is plain: the movement in Virginia proceeded from the heart of Virginia herself, and represented the magnanimity of her own people. It did not spring, it could not spring from sentiments generated by the by-gone loyalty to the Stuarts. The Ancient Dominion had with entire unanimity approved the revolution of 1688; with equal unanimity, had, even more readily than the English, accepted the house of Hanover, and had been one of the most loyal parts of the empire of the Georges; the revolution was due to a keen sentiment of wrong and outrage, and was joined in with a oneness of spirit, which asked no questions about ancestry, or traditional affinities, or religious creed, or nearness to the sea or to the mountains. The story of the war commemorates the courage of the highlanders; among the ‘inexorable families,’ Dunmore especially reported from the low country the family of the Lees and the whole family of Cary of Hampton, of whom even the sisters, married to a Fairfax and a Nicholas, cheered on their connections to unrelenting opposition. Virginia rose with as much unanimity as Connecticut or Massachusetts, and with a more commanding resolution.

The purpose for which the convention was assembled, appears from the words of the county of Buckingham [376] to Charles Patterson and John Cabell, its del-

Chap. LXIV.} 1776. May.
egates: ‘We instruct you to cause a total and final separation from Great Britain to take place as soon as possible; and a constitution to be established, with a full representation, and free and frequent elections. As America is the last country of the world which has contended for her liberty, so she may be the most free and happy; taking advantage of her situation and strength, and having the experience of all before to profit by. The supreme Being hath left it in our power to choose what government we please for our civil and religious happiness: good government and the prosperity of mankind can alone be in the divine intention; we pray, therefore, that under the superintending providence of the Ruler of the universe, a government may be established in America, the most free, happy, and permanent that human wisdom can contrive and the perfection of man maintain.’

The county of Augusta represented the necessity of making the confederacy of the United Colonies, most perfect, independent, and lasting; and of framing an equal, free, and liberal government, that might bear the test of all future ages. A petition was also sent from the inhabitants of Transylvania, declaring that they were anxious to concur with their brethren of the United Colonies in every measure for the recovery of their rights and liberties.

The inhabitants on the rivers Watauga and Holstein set forth, that ‘they were deeply impressed with a sense of the distresses of their American brethren, and would, when called upon, with their lives and fortunes, lend them every assistance in their power; that they begged to be considered as a part of the [377] colony, and would readily embrace every opportu-

Chap. XLIV.} 1776. May.
nity of obeying any commands from the convention.’

To that body were chosen more than one hundred and thirty of the ablest and most weighty men of Virginia. Among them were no rash enthusiasts for liberty; no lovers of revolution for the sake of change; no ambitious demagogues hoping for advancement by the overthrow of existing institutions; they were the choice of the freeholders of Virginia, and the majority were men of independent fortune or even opulence. It was afterwards remembered that of this grave assembly the members were for the most part men of large stature and robust frames, and that a very great proportion of them lived to exceeding old age. They were now to decide whether Virginia demanded independence, and if so, they were to establish a commonwealth; and in making this decision they moved like a pillar of fire in front of the whole country.

When the delegates had assembled and appointed a clerk, Richard Bland recommended Edmund Pendleton to be chosen president, and was seconded by Archibald Cary; while Thomas Johnson of Louisa, and Bartholomew Dandridge proposed Thomas Ludwell Lee. For a moment there was something like an array of parties, but it instantly subsided; Virginia showed her greatness by her moderation, and gave to the world new evidence that the revolution sprung from necessity, by placing in the chair Pendleton, the most cautious and conservative among the patriots.

The convention, after having been employed for some days on current business, resolved itself into a committee of the whole on the state of the colony; [378] and on the fifteenth Archibald Cary reported resolu-

Chap. LXIV.} 1776. May.
tions which had been drafted by Pendleton, offered by Nelson, and enforced by Henry. They were then twice read at the clerk's table, and, one hundred and twelve members being present, were unanimously agreed to. The preamble enumerated their chief grievances, among others, that the king's representative in the colony was training and employing slaves against their masters; and they say: ‘We have no alternative left but an abject submission or a total separation;’ therefore they went on to decree, ‘that their delegates in congress be instructed to propose to that body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance or dependence upon the crown or parliament of Great Britain; and that they give the assent of this colony to such declaration, and to measures for forming foreign alliances, and a confederation of the colonies: provided that the power of forming government for, and the regulation of the internal concerns of, each colony be left to the respective colonial legislatures.’

This resolution was received out of doors with chimes of bells and the noise of artillery; and the British flag, which had thus far kept its place on the state-house, was struck, to be raised no more.

In the following days a committee of thirty two was appointed to prepare a declaration of rights and a plan of government. Among the members were Archibald Cary, Patrick Henry, the aged Richard Bland, Edmund Randolph, son of the attorney general, who was then a refugee in England, Nicholas, James Madison, the youthful delegate from Orange county; but the man of most influence at this great [379] moment was George Mason, the successor of Washing-

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ton in the representation of Fairfax county. He was a devoted member of the church of England; and by his own account of himself, which is still preserved, ‘though not born within the verge of the British isle, he had been an Englishman in his principles, a zealous assertor of the act of settlement, firmly attached to the royal family upon the throne, well affected to the king personally and to his government, in defence of which he would have shed the last drop of his blood; one who adored the wisdom and happiness of the British constitution, and preferred it to any that then existed or had ever existed.’ For ten years he claimed nothing for his countrymen beyond the liberty and privileges of Englishmen, in the same degree as if they had still continued among their brethren in Great Britain; but he said: ‘The ancient poets, in their elegant manner of expression, have made a kind of Being of necessity, and tell us that the gods themselves are obliged to yield to her;’ and he left the private life that he loved, to assist in the rescue of his country from the excesses of arbitrary power to which a seeming fatality had driven the British ministers. He was a good speaker and an able debater; the more eloquent now for being touched with sorrow; but his great strength lay in his sincerity, which made him wise and bold, modest and unchanging, while it overawed his hearers. He was severe, but his severity was humane, with no tinge of bitterness, though he had a scorn for every thing mean, and cowardly, and low; and he always spoke out his convictions with frank directness. He had been truly loyal; on renouncing his king, he could stand justified to his [380] own conscience only by the purest and most unselfish
Chap. LXIV.} 1776. May.
attachment to human freedom.

On the twenty seventh of May, Cary from the committee presented to the convention the declaration of rights, which Mason had drafted. For the next fortnight the great truths which it proclaimed, and which were to form the groundwork of American institutions, employed the thoughts of the convention, and during several successive days were the subject of solemn deliberation. One clause only received a material amendment. Mason had written that all should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion. But toleration is the demand of the sceptic, who has no fixed belief and only wishes to be let alone; a firm faith, which is too easily tempted to establish itself exclusively, can be content with nothing less than equality. A young man, then unknown to fame, of a bright hazel eye, inclining to grey, small in stature, light in person, delicate in appearance, looking like a pallid, sickly scholar among the robust men with whom he was associated, proposed a change. He was James Madison, the son of an Orange county planter, bred in the school of Presbyterian dissenters under Witherspoon at Princeton, trained by his own studies, by meditative rural life in the Old Dominion, by an ingenuous indignation at the persecutions of the Baptists, by the innate principles of right, to uphold the sanctity of religious freedom. He objected to the word toleration, because it implied an established religion, which endured dissent only as a condescension; and as the earnestness of his convictions overcame his modesty, he went on to demonstrate that ‘all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of [381] religion, according to the dictates of conscience.’ His

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motion, which did but state with better dialectics the very purpose which Mason wished to accomplish, obtained the suffrages of his colleagues. This was the first achievement of the wisest civilian of Virginia. The declaration of rights having then been fairly transcribed, was on the twelfth of June read a third time and unanimously adopted by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free convention.

These are the rights which they said do pertain to them and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government:

All men are by nature equally free, and have inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, 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.

All power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.

Government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit and security of the people, nation, or community; and 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 a manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

Public services not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary. [382]

The legislative and executive powers of the state

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should be separate and distinct from the judicative; the members of the two first should, at fixed periods, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections.

Elections of members to serve as representatives of the people in assembly, ought to be free; and all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent or that of their representative so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented for the public good.

There ought to be no arbitrary power of suspending laws, no requirement of excessive bail, no granting of general warrants.

No man ought to be deprived of liberty, except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers; and the ancient trial by jury ought to be held sacred.

The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.

A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; standing armies in time of peace should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to the civil power.

The people have a right to uniform government; and therefore no government separate from or independent [383] of, the government of Virginia, ought to be

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erected or established within the limits thereof.

No free government can be preserved but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

Religion can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of it, according to the dictates of conscience; and it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other.

Other colonies had framed bills of rights in reference to their relations with Britain; Virginia moved from charters and customs to primal principles; from a narrow altercation with lawyers about facts to the contemplation of immutable truth. She summoned the eternal laws of man's being to protest against all tyranny. The English petition of right in 1688, was historic and retrospective; the Virginia declaration came directly out of the heart of nature, and announced governing principles for all peoples in all future times. It was the voice of reason going forth to create new institutions, to speak a new political world into being. Virginia presented herself at the bar of the world, and gave the name and fame of her sons as hostages, that her public life should show a likeness to the highest ideas of right and equal freedom among men.

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