Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States (Image cred­it: Wikipedia, pub­lic domain)

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.

George Mason
George Mason, a found­ing father of the U.S. and sign­er of the Constitution. (Image cred­it: Wikipedia, pub­lic domain)

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.

  • Chuck Witt

    Chuck is a retired archi­tect, a for­mer news­pa­per colum­nist, and a life­long res­i­dent of Winchester.