Founding Documents

The students will compare and contrast George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and recognize the purpose of each document, the author of each document, the date of each document, and how the two documents are related.

Historical Background

George Mason, at age 50, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights in only about 6 weeks. This document lays out the rights of the Virginian government and the rights of the people who live in Virginia. George Mason presented it to the Virginia Constitutional Convention in the middle of June 1776. All of the delegates loved what he had written and voted to make it Virginia’s “Bill of Rights.” George Mason was one of the first people to write down and explain the rights of individual citizens, and so many other colonies wrote similar documents for the people in their colonies too.

Thomas Jefferson considered George Mason to be one of “the wisest m[e]n of his generation.” Jefferson at age 33 used George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights for much of the wording of the opening to the Declaration of Independence only a few weeks later. The Declaration of Independence was the document that the Continental Congress signed on July 4, 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain to form the new country of the United States of America.

Lesson Objective

Essential Question: What are the similarities and differences between George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence?

VS.6: The student will demonstrate knowledge of the role of Virginia in the establishment of the new American nation by identifying the ideas of George Mason and Thomas Jefferson as expressed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.



  1. Set the stage: Students will sign the Declaration of Independence and discuss the source of these ideas. Ask students: (1) From whom did Thomas Jefferson get some of his ideas when he wrote the Declaration? From what document did Jefferson get these ideas?
  2. Instruction: Discuss when and why the Virginia Declaration of Rights was written. Also review the reasons the Declaration of Independence was written and when. (see powerpoint)
  3. Guided Practice: The students will be break into pairs. Give students seven minutes to highlight words and phrases from the Virginia Declaration of Rights that are the same as those found in the Declaration of Independence.
  4. Student pairs will share some of the similarities between the two documents.
  5. Using the graphic organizer, students will list at least three similarities and three differences between the two documents.


Jefferson, Thomas. Declaration of Independence. June 1776. From the National Archives and Records Administration: The Charters of Freedom. (accessed April 6, 2012).

Mason, George, and Thomas Ludwell Lee. Virginia Declaration of Rights. May 1776. Gunston Hall. (accessed April 6, 2012).

“Virginia Declaration to Go on View.” The Library of Congress information bulletin, July 1997. (accessed April 6, 1988).

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