The year 1776 saw the signing of the Declaration of Independence the creation of state constitutions. But there was one question Americans couldn’t answer clearly: Who had the right to declare what the law shall be?
Historian Forrest McDonald describes the problem facing the Patriots:
“Of the eight constitutions established in 1776, six were drafted by bodies especially elected for the purpose, but they were never submitted to anyone for ratification…Proclamation of a constitution by a legislative order was scarcely a satisfactory procedure, for what one legislative body could enact another could repeal. To cope with this problem, some early constitution makers appended to their constitution a list of principles that, they declared, no government could properly violate.”
The first of these lists of principles was written by George Mason of Virginia. It was on June 12, 1776, the “Virginia Declaration of Rights,” or “Bill of Rights,” was approved by the Virginia Constitutional Convention. This Bill of Rights became the preamble to the Virginia Constitution. Other states followed Virginia’s example using Mason’s work as a prototype while making revisions of their own. Each state constitution, even though they varied in some aspects, with one voice proclaimed the common beliefs regarding the role of government and man’s natural rights.
They guaranteed, for instance, freedom of speech, of the press, and religious worship. Individual liberty was the fundamental law. “A freeman’s remedy against a restraint of his liberty ought not to be denied or delayed,” declared the North Carolina Constitution. Other freedom principles were recognized too: representative government, trial by jury, the protection against unreasonable searches of people and papers, cruel and unusual punishment were forbidden, and other fundamental liberties were secured.
Thomas Jefferson’s wording in the Declaration of Independence was inspired by Mason’s work; so too were the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution – our national Bill of Rights.
The Virginia Bill of Rights contains sixteen declarations. George Mason wrote the first fifteen; Patrick Henry wrote the sixteenth concerning religious liberty.
Declaration 15 states:
“That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”
The word “recurrence” means “to resort to,” “to return to,” “to think about.” Mason is telling us that a government based on freedom principles won’t last long unless the people are constantly thinking about and applying correct principles to every area of life. Principles help us make the right decisions personally and politically. Of course that generation didn’t they practice them perfectly, especially with the existence of the institution of slavery, but they knew the principles and had the courage to proclaim them as the foundational of our country. Our practice is usually sluggish when it comes to our principles, but if we hold on to correct principles our practice will catch up. Living up to our lofty principles is part of the American experience; we always strive to be better.
Are WE living up to correct principles today?
Patrick Henry concludes the Virginia Bill of Rights with Declaration 16:
“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, 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 religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other.”
America won’t remain free unless “We the People” practice these two things:
- Think about, resort to, and return to fundamental principles.
- Practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other.
On June 12, 1776, the Virginia Constitutional Convention approves George Mason’s Bill of Rights, the forerunner to the first ten amendments to the