On May 15, 1776 the provisional government of Virginia voted to instruct its Congressional delegation to propose and support a declaration of independence from Great Britain. This was two days after the 8th Virginia marched south with General Charles Lee to meet the enemy in the Carolinas. However, a few of the regiment’s soldiers—stragglers and sick men who were left behind—may have witnessed the celebration on May 16. The Union Jack was lowered from the capital and replaced with the Grand Union flag. The men were paraded to nearby Walter’s Grove, attended by the commander of the provincial army (General Andrew Lewis), the Committee of Safety, the Virginia Convention, and members of the public.
The resolution was read aloud, followed by three toasts. The first was to “The American independent states.” The second was to “The Grand Congress of the United States and their respective Legislatures.” The third was to “General Washington, and victory to the American Arms.” Each toast was saluted by the firing of cannon. After the reading, an outdoor “refreshment” was held for the soldiers. When the sun set, illuminations were lit to celebrate. The next day, May 17, was set aside as a day for fasting and prayer.
Three weeks later, the Virginia delegation complied with its mandate, proposing independence to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Less than a month after that, Independence was formally declared. It took until early August for the 8th Virginia to hear the news in far-off Charleston, South Carolina.
Meanwhile, 8th Virginia stragglers continued to arrive in the capital, including an entire company under the command of Captain William Croghan from Fort Pitt. These men were present when two truly world-historical events occurred in Williamsburg: the June 12th adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (a precursor to and model for the Declaration of Independence), and the June 29 adoption of a new, written (rather than evolving or “living”) constitution which declared the people rather than a monarch to be sovereign.
The May 15 resolution and the Virginia Declaration of Rights are both worth the few minutes it takes to read them. The Declaration was written by George Mason with revisions from Robert Nicholas and James Madison. It is clear how much Thomas Jefferson depended on Mason’s writing in drafting Congress’s declaration for the colonies. Mason's declaration was a template for the Bill of Rights as well. Similarly, the Virginia Constitution was, at least in some respects, a template for the U.S. Constitution--though other states can claim that as well. For the United States, July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day. Virginians should also celebrate--or at least remember--May 15.
The May 15 Resolution
Forasmuch as all the endeavours of the United Colonies, by the most decent representations and petitions to the King and Parliament of Great Britain, to restore peace and security to America under the British Government, and a reunion with that people upon just and liberal terms, instead of a redress of grievances, have produced, from an imperious and vindictive Administration, increased insult, oppression, and a vigorous attempt to effect our total destruction. By a late act all these Colonies are declared to be in rebellion, and out of the protection of the British Crown, our properties subjected to confiscation, our people, when captivated, compelled to join in the murder and plunder of their relations and countermen, and all former rapine and oppression of Americans declared legal and just; fleets and armies are raised, and the aid of foreign troops engaged to assist these destructive purposes; the King's representative in this Colony bath not only withheld all the powers of Government from operating for our safety, but, having retired on board an armed ship, is carrying on a piratical and savage war against us, tempting our slaves by every artifice to resort to him, and training and employing them against their masters. In this state of extreme danger, we have no alternative left but an abject submission to the will of those overbearing tyrants, or a total separation from the Crown and Government of Great Britain, uniting and exerting the strength of all America for defence, and forming alliances with foreign Powers for commerce and aid in war. Wherefore, appealing to the Searcher of hearts for the sincerity of former declarations expressing our desire to preserve the connection with that nation, and that we are driven from that inclination by their wicked councils, and the eternal law of self-preservation:
Resolved, unanimously, That the Delegates appointed to represent this Colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain; and that they give the assent of this Colony to such declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the Congress for forming foreign alliances, and a Confederation of the Colonies, at such time and in the manner as to them shall seem best: Provided, That the power of forming Government for, and the regulations of the internal concerns of each Colony, be left to the respective Colonial Legislatures.
Resolved, unanimously, That a Committee be appointed to prepare a Declaration of Rights, and such a plan of Government as will be most likely to maintain peace and order in this Colony, and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights
A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free convention which rights do pertain to them and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government.
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.
Section 2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.
Section 3. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration. And that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.
Section 4. None of mankind is entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary.
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 shall direct.
Section 6. That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly ought to be free; and that all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented for the public good.
Section 7. That all power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws, by any authority, without consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights and ought not to be exercised.
Section 8. That in all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.
Section 9. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Section 10. That general warrants, whereby an officer or messenger may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of a fact committed, or to seize any person or persons not named, or whose offense is not particularly described and supported by evidence, are grievous and oppressive and ought not to be granted.
Section 11. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other and ought to be held sacred.
Section 12. That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.
Section 13. That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
Section 14. That the people have a right to uniform government; and, therefore, that no government separate from or independent of the government of Virginia ought to be erected or established within the limits thereof.
Section 15. 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.
Section 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 practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.
is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
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