Translating the Virginia Declaration of Rights

Duration: 10 minutes-3 hours
Recommended Ages: Ages 12+, not recommended as an independent activity for children younger than 12
Description: Further your understanding of the Virginia Declaration of Rights by translating it into modern language.

In 1776 the American Revolution was starting to heat up. George Washington was already leading the Continental Army. Virginia and the other colonies in revolt decided to write constitutions to replace their old English governments. 

A group of leading Virginians, including George Mason, met in Williamsburg to create the new government. Many thought Mason had one of the best minds at the gathering. The delegates asked Mason to work on a draft of a “declaration of rights.”  

Mason wrote several pages of ideas about the ways government should work and what rights naturally belonged to the people. Mason used his understanding of history, law, and political theory. When he was done, others added their ideas. The final draft was voted on and approved by the delegates on June 12, 1776.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights includes 16 sections, called “articles.” Some of the document focuses on individual rights, such as the right to a trial by jury or the right to choose one’s religion. 

Other parts are about the structure of the government. For example, the Virginia Declaration of Rights says that judges should be elected (rather than appointed) and that people should not hold government positions just because of who their parents are.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights also talks about the responsibilities of citizens. It says that government will be successful only if citizens have good character and live up to their values.

One of the most important ideas in the Virginia Declaration of Rights is that the purpose of government is to provide for the “common benefit,” not to make certain people wealthy or to provide them with special favors.

Discover for yourself what the document says.  George Mason’s words are sometimes confusing to 21st-century readers, though.  You might want to re-write the Virginia Declaration of Rights in modern language.  Click on the links below to download Gunston Hall’s “Translate the Virginia Declaration of Rights Worksheets” and a glossary to help navigate the historic terminology.