Most every American knows of the role that Thomas Jefferson played in writing the Declaration of Independence. According to Founding Myths by Ray Raphael, Jefferson did not compose the powerful words of that document from thin air. He drew on similar documents, primarily from The Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason and adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention on June 12, 1776, shortly before the more famous document was adopted by the Continental Congress.
If one reads the sixteen sections of the earlier documents (each section is quite short; the entire treatise can easily be read in less than three minutes), there are clauses within it that are clearly echoed in Jefferson’s composition.
This does not diminish the work of Jefferson nor relegate its content to anything less than the revered work that Americans know.
Of course, it is probably true that the number of people who are even aware of Mason’s work is infinitesimal, but his influence on Jefferson is immediately apparent when comparing the two documents.
Mason, Section 1. “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain 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.”
Jefferson, second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What is also obvious in comparing these two passages is that the flow and poetry of Jefferson is more carefully crafted and displayed… and readable.
Jefferson proceeds in the following paragraphs to lay out the impositions of the Crown on the colonies as a justification for separation, while the following sections of Mason’s Declaration are more attuned to our Constitution. His Section 5 is most interesting in that it contains an admonition that does not show up in the Constitution, at least not in such a forceful way.
Section 5: “That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judiciary; and that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burdens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections, in which all, or any part, of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws may direct.”
A bit wordy and also somewhat unspecific – frequent, regular, fixed periods.
But the focus of the section is one that has eluded virtually all elected officials since the first election, the suggestion that the positions which have been achieved through election are not to be considered to be permanent and that those who are chosen for office should reconcile themselves to returning to their former occupations within some reasonable period of time.
Currently, the three longest-serving Senators are Leahy, 47 years; Grassley, 41 years; and McConnell, 37 years and the three longest-serving Representatives are Rogers, 41 years; Smith, 40 years; and Hoyer,40 years.
Either none of these individuals has ever read Mason, or they simply feel that it doesn’t apply to them but isn’t it time to confine the terms of Congress just as they did for the President in the 22nd Amendment?
The complete Virginia Declaration of Rights can be found at www.archives.gov/founding-docs/virginia-declaration-of-rights.