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The First Article of the Virginia Bill of Rights Is Adopted by the Old Dominion: June 12, 1776

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise.

Between mid-May and early June 1776, the southern colonies, from Georgia to Virginia, all endorsed independence, as did the four New England colonies. Only the Middle Colonies (New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) held back. On June 2, Richard Henry Lee read to Congress a resolution approved by the Virginia legislature, that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” This resolution notwithstanding, the Middle Colonies would not budge, and the vote for independence was postponed until July 1. In the meantime, a committee of five—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston—were appointed to draw up a formal declaration for independence. The youngest member of this committee, the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, was given the task of drafting the document.

The Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence

John Dickinson was the first to address Congress on July 1, and he spoke out against independence. However, by the next day, July 2, nearly all the delegates were in favor of independence; and when the vote was taken, 12 colonies voted for independence, while the New York delegation abstained. The next step was to adopt Jefferson’s draft of a declaration of independence. After emending the document, all the delegates present, except John Dickinson, voted to adopt it, and John Hancock as president of Congress signed it, on July 4, 1776. Over the next month the Declaration was sent to the various colonial legislatures for their approval. Finally, on August 2, the members of Congress signed their names to the document, including John Carroll of Carrollton in Maryland, the only Catholic to do so.

The Declaration of Independence is an eloquent catalog of the causes that, Congress claimed, compelled the colonies to seek independence from Great Britain. It is a “selfevident” truth that all men are created equal, and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This language was drawn from Locke, though Jefferson substituted the phrase, “pursuit of Happiness,” for Locke’s “property.” Jefferson may have derived his wording from another document with which he was doubtless familiar—the first article of the Virginia Bill of Rights, drafted by George Mason and adopted June 12, 1776 by the Old Dominion:

. . . 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.

Is She a Moor, an American, or Both?

Johann Christian Friedrich Bach (Johann Sebastian Bach’s fifth son) composed this “lyric picture,” as he called it, set to a poem (“Song of a Moor”) that evokes the Middle East. Nevertheless, J.C.F. Bach called it, Die Amerikanerin (The American Woman), perhaps because it was published in 1776, amid the dramatic events of the revolution in North America. What follows is the Allegretto, whose text, translated, reads: “Saide, come! My desire, my song!/Saide, come! The day takes flight!/Where is she? She, my desire, my song!/How comes it that she has vanished away?”

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