By Doug Anstaett
In the just-completed 2012 presidential election, Virginia played a key role as a “swing state.”
The race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was too close to call in several states, so the candidates spent a considerable amount of time jetting back and forth trying to convince voters in those “battleground states” they were the best choice for president.
The race went down to the wire, and Virginia’s electoral delegates eventually were awarded to the incumbent president.
This isn’t the first time Virginia has served a significant role as a “swing state.” In the days leading up to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, representatives from the “Old Dominion” led a valiant effort to include basic individual rights in the nation’s founding document.
While a listing of those rights we cherish today wouldn’t make it into the original document, Virginia’s delegates placed considerable pressure on their peers to promise they would be addressed by the First U.S. Congress.
Serving as the chief catalyst for the individual rights movement was a man who never got much credit for it. He didn’t become president or vice president and certainly was seldom mentioned in the same breath with the other Founding Fathers.
In fact, you’ve probably never heard his name except for when his university advances in the NCAA basketball tournament.
But George Mason extracted a promise from fellow Virginian James Madison, a future president, to make sure those rights of freedom of speech, press and religion, freedom from search and seizure, the right to a fair trial by a jury of ones peers and the right to bear arms were spelled out.
Mason, a Virginia delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, already had significantly affected the American Revolution by writing the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Many phrases from that document can be found in slightly altered words in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, including “all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people,” “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety” and his call for “frequent, certain, and regular”elections.
Mason believed government power should be limited and that the rights of citizens should be paramount. But his proposal for a bill of rights fashioned after Virginia’s was defeated. At the first session of the first Congress, Madison, also an elected representative from Virginia, introduced a Bill of Rights that reflected Mason’s ideas.
Besides the rights already mentioned above, those first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution also outlawed excessive bail, fines and cruel and unusual punishment and reserved some powers to the states.
Today, some 221 years later, Americans exercise those rights each and every day. Maybe this year we should say a word of thanks to the state of Virginia and especially to the delegate who wouldn’t take no for an answer on our most cherished rights: George Mason.
Doug Anstaett is executive director of the Kansas Press Association in Topeka.