Virginia Leaders’ Impact on America’s Founding

Author: Rebecca Schwier
School: Pearson Elementary School, Fauquier County
Grade Level: Elementary School
Time Estimated: 5-50 minute periods

My fourth grade students are just beginning their study of the American Revolution. They are familiar with the good relationship between Britain and its American Colonies. They are somewhat well versed in the French and Indian War. Students are eager to learn and seem to have a good grasp of events in Virginia at this time. When we begin this mini-unit they will have some familiarity with Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence and Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. As a result of completing this unit, students will recognize the impact of George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison on both Virginia and the nation as a whole. Specifically, students will know the differences and connections between Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the Bill of Rights to the Constitution as proposed by Madison, as well as Madison’s role as “Father of the Constitution.” While working on this mini-unit students will become more comfortable with examining primary sources. I teach three groups of social studies, so one of my groups has several Gifted and Talented students, one has many special needs students (with a teacher assistant) and one has a mixed ability group with two autistic boys.


Historical Background:

The Revolutionary and Constitutional periods are essential to understanding America’s history. Between 1763 and 1775 American colonists went from being loyal British subjects to being rebels against the strongest empire in the world. Then between 1775 and 1791 Americans won their independence and then had to create an effective government. Virginians played a critical role in both of these periods, and had an impact well beyond their colony and then state. Many Americans know about George Washington as Commander in Chief during the Revolution, and many are aware of Thomas Jefferson in his role as drafter of the Declaration of Independence. Fewer know about George Mason and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, or about Thomas Jefferson as author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, or about why James Madison is considered the “Father of the Constitution” and his role in creating our Bill of Rights. This mini-unit focuses on these somewhat lesser known but vitally important Virginians and their roles in American history.

How did American colonists go from being loyal British subjects to becoming rebels between 1763 and 1775? Americans in all colonies including Virginia had prospered before 1763 during the period of “benign neglect” when Britain’s Parliament regulated colonial trade but restricted this to exotic goods such as sugar and tobacco. This began to change in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian War when Parliament – pushed by Britain’s huge war debt – began to tax the colonies in a new way. Colonists had been taxed by their own colonial legislatures, with each local assembly understanding the needs of its people. But from 1763 on, Parliament taxed American colonists directly and justifiably – in their view – to keep troops in the colonies and on the frontier for the colonists’ own protection. In response to the Stamp Act in 1765 American colonists began their first inter-colonial cooperation against British actions. They organized the Stamp Act Congress that launched a boycott of British goods and, remarkably, succeeded in getting Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act. But this did not end Parliament’s efforts to tax and American colonists in 1765 were still a long way from revolution.

During the next ten years – from the Declaratory Act, to the Tea Act (and the Boston Tea Party), the Intolerable Acts and the First Continental Congress – colonists used newspapers, letters, and organized public meetings to argue and disagree about the best way to get Britain to recognize what they considered to be their basic rights.

Between 1775 and 1791 Americans went from beginning their rebellion, to declaring their independence, through six years of war, to forming their new nation’s first government, and to creating a remarkably strong government under the Constitution. And although Massachusetts had played as great a role as Virginia in bringing about the Revolution, Virginia had the predominant role in forming the new nation. George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights of June 1776 set the pattern for the federal Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786 was the most sweeping call for freedom of conscience of any legislative enactment in history. And James Madison, before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, played a major role in establishing America’s sound government.

The Virginia Convention met in Williamsburg in May 1776 and passed a resolution calling for the Virginia delegates at the Continental Congress to move for independence. At the same time they formed a committee for drafting a bill of rights and a constitution for Virginia. George Mason took the lead on this project. An aristocrat who owned and managed 5,000 acres of land, George Mason was a neighbor and friend of George Washington. Mason studied law and was active in community affairs but preferred private to public life, often refusing position in public office. He was a great defender of individual rights and wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights and a large part of the Virginia state Constitution in 1776.

Mason’s thinking and writing influenced Thomas Jefferson in his drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Mason was the older man who Jefferson knew and respected. In the 18th century, according to Pauline Meier in American Scripture (page 104), achievement lay not in novelty but instead in creative adaptation of preexisting models to different circumstances, with the highest praise of all going to imitations whose excellence exceeded that of the examples that inspired them. Mason’s draft fed into Jefferson’s opening paragraphs on the fundamental authority of government. Mason’s broad impact can be seen in that seven of the articles in his Virginia Declaration of Rights set the pattern not only for his own state but also for other states’ bills of rights as well as the national Bill of Rights.

In 1787 George Mason was part of Virginia’s powerful delegation to the Constitutional Convention where he had much to say about critical issues of the day, including speaking against slavery and more specifically against slave importation though he – like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison – was a slave owner. Mason was disappointed in the section of the Constitution that allowed for the importation of slaves for at least twenty years, but he was also disappointed that the Constitution did not specifically protect property in the form of slaves that men already owned. For these reasons and particularly because it did not contain a Bill of Rights, Mason did not sign the Constitution and fought against its ratification in Virginia but then, when Madison promised that a Bill of Rights would be added – Mason agreed to vote for ratification in Virginia.

In addition to being the primary author of the famous Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote the less well known but extremely important Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. To appreciate the importance of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, it is useful to understand the historical context surrounding early Americans’ assumptions about religion. The Founding Fathers held a wide variety of views on the separation of church and state. In most colonies there was an established church, there were religious tests for public office, and taxes were paid to ministers. The only difference was which church was the church: in New England it was the Congregationalists, in the south, including Virginia, it was the Church of England. In Virginia there were lots of dissenters including Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. But during their Revolution, many Americans challenged the belief that one must be religious in order to be a good citizen.

After the Revolution Virginia disestablished the Church of England and took the lead on the separation of church and state. At that point, Jefferson and Madison were concerned about a void. Jefferson wanted to go beyond religious toleration to protect complete religious freedom. He believed that religious liberty included the right not to believe in God and the right not to be Christian. Jefferson considered religion to be not “the truth” but an opinion, and argued therefore that people could hold different – or no – religious beliefs just as they could hold different opinions on other subjects. He went further in this than his mentor George Mason had in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, # 16, in which Mason wrote “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 practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other.” Jefferson believed that it was bad for the church as well as the state not to have complete separation. Madison took up this cause and started a huge petition campaign for freedom of conscience and thus helped to pass this statute in Virginia in 1786. They both believed that it was the state’s role to protect that right. This belief is also behind the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights that includes the establishment and free exercise clauses, and provides for the separation of church and state. Many other states continued to have tests of religion for public office and tax supported churches, but Virginia led the way on this essential principle.

James Madison was a young and wealthy Virginia planter whose thinking played a major role in America’s new government. By the time of the Revolution his father and uncle had accumulated more than ten thousand acres of land and owned more than one hundred slaves. Madison had a first rate education. He studied law as preparation for politics but suffered an early electoral defeat. Madison was elected to the Continental Congress from Virginia and this experience strengthened his friendship with Jefferson. Madison worried that too much democracy was dangerous. He believed most in a republic – not in a democracy. He saw checks and balances as the defense against the accumulation of power. In a republic, according to Madison, government helped people control their passions for the good of the country.

When in 1786-87 the nation was struggling under the Articles of Confederation, Madison was greatly concerned that the U.S. was accumulating unpaid debts and was alarmed over Shays Rebellion. In preparing to attend the Philadelphia convention to revise the Articles, he took great care to study past successful governments and current Enlightenment thinking. Through fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph, Madison presented these and other ideas in the Virginia Plan that articulated his belief in separating the government’s powers and in establishing checks and balances. His careful preparation, avid recording of the debates, and highly informed participation set him apart at the Constitutional Convention – leading to Madison being called the “Father of the Constitution.”

And after the Convention Madison played a key role in the ratification process as an outspoken supporter of the Constitution. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he was one of the three authors of Federalist Papers, a series of 85 articles that argued eloquently for ratification. Madison was also a key part of the fiercely contested ratification debate in Virginia, finally calling on George Mason and then George Washington to support ratification. Once the Constitution was ratified, in 1788 Madison as a member of Congress wrote the first 10 Amendments that became the Bill of Rights, drawing heavily from Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights and Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Timeline for Teacher Reference to use and adapt so that students can create their own timelines.

  • 1775
    • April:
      • Fighting breaks out between the American colonists and British regulars at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts.
    • May:
      • The Second Continental Congress convenes in Philadelphia.
    • June:
      • George Washington of Virginia becomes Commander in Chief of the Continental Army
  • 1776
    • June:
      • George Mason drafts the Virginia Declaration of Rights for the Virginia state Constitution, which Thomas Jefferson later paraphrases in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights also set the pattern for the national Bill of Rights later added as the first ten amendments to U.S. Constitution.
      • Second Continental Congress delegate Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduces a resolution calling for independence, the formation of foreign alliances, and the creation of a plan of confederation after independence is achieved.
    • July:
      • Congress adopts the Lee Resolution for independence.
      • Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence as amended by Congress and is approved and signed.
      • A draft of the Articles of Confederation is submitted to the Congress and after much debate is adopted on Nov. 15, 1777.
    • December:
      • General Washington crosses the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to Trenton, NJ, and defeats the Hessians in a surprise attack.
  • 1781
    • March:
      • The Continental Congress is succeeded by “The United States Congress Assembled” as empowered by the ratified Articles of Confederation.
    • October:
      • British General Cornwallis surrenders to General George Washington and the French Commander Comte de Rochambeau at Yorktown, Virginia.
  • 1783
    • September:
      • The Treaty of Paris, formally ending the Revolutionary War, is signed by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay. Congress ratifies it in 1784.
  • 1786
    • January:
      • The Virginia legislature adopts Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom. It will serve as a model for the First Amendment to the Constitution.
    • September:
      • Members of five states meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, call a convention to meet in Philadelphia in May of 1787 for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.
  • 1787
    • May:
      • The Constitutional Convention opens in Philadelphia. Eventually all states but Rhode Island attend. George Washington is elected President of the Convention. Thomas Jefferson did not attend because he was representing the United States in France. James Madison of Virginia, and one of the youngest delegates and a friend of Jefferson’s, had studied about governments from other places and times, and took what he thought were the best ideas and brought them to the Convention. He also wrote the most complete set of notes about the debates during the Convention. George Mason was also a delegate from Virginia, a friend of both Washington and Jefferson, was one of three delegates who refused to sign the Constitution because it had no bill of rights.
      • The Virginia Plan, proposed by Edmund Randolph of Virginia, and informed by Madison’s thinking, goes beyond revising the Articles and calls for a new national government.
    • September:
      • Debate in the Constitutional Convention ends. The Constitution is adopted by that body and is submitted to Congress.
    • October:
      • Seeking to persuade New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay begin to publish their 85 carefully crafted essays, which will later be published as The Federalist Papers.
  • 1788
    • June:
      • With ratification by New Hampshire, the ninth state, the Constitution becomes effective and thereby replaces the Articles of Confederation.
  • 1789
    • April:
      • George Washington is elected President by unanimous vote of the electors.
    • September:
      • The House of Representatives recommends 12 amendments to the Constitution, written by James Madison when he served in the first congress. The 10 that are ratified in 1791 will become the Bill of Rights.
  • 1790
    • March:
      • Thomas Jefferson is sworn in as the first Secretary of State.
  • 1791
    • Ten amendments are ratified and become the Bill of Rights.


Major Understanding:

Students will understand that George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and James Madison in his role as “Father of the Constitution” and framer of the Bill of Rights all made major contributions to the beginnings of government in both Virginia and the American nation as a whole.



Students will:

  1. Identify the ideas of Virginians during the establishment of the new nation, with emphasis on George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
  2. Identify and interpret primary and secondary sources to understand events in historical context: the writing and meaning of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Bill of Rights.


Standards of Learning:

VS.1 The students will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis including the ability to:

  1. identify and interpret artifacts and primary and secondary source documents to understand events in history.
  2. (g) interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives.

VS.6 The students will demonstrate knowledge of the role of Virginia in the establishment of the new American nation by:

  1. explaining why George Washington is called the “Father of Our Country” and James Madison is called the “Father of the Constitution.”
  2. identifying the ideas of George Mason and Thomas Jefferson as expressed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.