Contact: Yvonne French (202) 707-9191

June 25, 1997

Virginia Declaration of Rights To Be Displayed Beginning August 7 in "American Treasures of the Library of Congress" Exhibition

Document Is Basis for Declaration of Independence

One of the seminal documents in American history, George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights, will go on display August 7 in the "American Treasures of the Library of Congress" exhibition.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was written in May 1776 and is considered the basis for the Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Bill of Rights. In the Virginia Declaration of Rights, George Mason (1725-1792) called for American independence to preserve Americans' fundamental rights. He presented the Declaration to the Virginia Convention, which unanimously adopted it on June 12, 1776, in Williamsburg after amendments by Thomas Ludwell Lee (c. 1730-1777).

The Virginia Declaration will replace Thomas Jefferson's "original rough draught" of the Declaration of Independence in the exhibition. Both documents are fragile and light sensitive; therefore, the Library is able to display them for only limited periods of time under tight environmental controls.

A specially designed case -- unique in the world -- was custom-built to house these and other precious documents. It weighs 3 tons, and stands 10 feet high and 12 feet long. Built according to the highest standards of preservation and security, it is reserved exclusively for the Library's rarest and most valuable items.

"With these rotating treasures on display, the American public will be able to view many of the original manuscripts that shaped United States history," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

The original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence has been the centerpiece of the permanent, rotating "American Treasures" exhibition since it opened May 1. It will continue to be displayed through July 31. The Virginia Declaration of Rights will be on view August 7 through October 31, when it will be replaced by another important historical document.

Thomas Jefferson may have received a copy of the Virginia Declaration of Rights directly from Mason and Lee, his fellow Virginia planters and revolutionaries. Jefferson drew extensively from the Declaration of Rights, as well as from his own drafts of a new constitution for Virginia, when composing the Declaration of Independence in June 1776.

For example, the Virginia Declaration of Rights proposes "that all men are born equally free and independant [sic], and have certain inherent natural Rights, ... among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursueing [sic] and obtaining Happiness and Safety."

The Declaration of Independence states "... that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Mason's draft, which included several clauses added by Lee, was used by James Madison in preparing the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, and by the Marquis de Lafayette in drafting the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Also newly on display in the top treasures case will be:

  • Madison's copy of the Bill of Rights, printed in New York in 1789,
  • Lafayette's copy of France's Declaration of the Rights of Man presented to Thomas Jefferson in July 1789,
  • The Fairfax County Resolves of 1774, a bold statement of fundamental constitutional rights and a call for action written by Mason and George Washington on July 17, 1774, in protest of Britain's harsh retaliation against the colony of Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party.

Other items on display beginning August 7 include:

  • A 1789 letter from Thomas Jefferson ordering portraits from painter John Trumbull of Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton, "the three greatest men that have ever lived," and
  • 1791 letter to French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet praising the mathematical abilities of Benjamin Banneker, a free Maryland black, and stating, "... the want of talents observed in [blacks] is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference."

The "American Treasures" exhibition assembles for the first time the rarest and most significant items from the Library's collections relating to America's past drawn from every corner of the world's largest library. It is the Library's first permanent exhibition.

A unique selection of rare books, music, manuscripts, maps, photographs, drawings, audio selections and video clips gives visitors a firsthand look at a cross section of the vast repository that has been called "America's Memory." Highlights of the exhibition include the first extant book printed in America, early baseball cards, the contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night of his assassination, and a photograph of the Wright brothers' first flight taken at the instant of takeoff.

The exhibition displays 240 items arranged in the manner of Jefferson's own library, the seed from which the present Library of Congress collections grew. It was ordered: Memory (History); Reason (Philosophy, including Law, Science and Geography); and Imagination (Fine Arts, including Architecture, Music, Literature and the Leisure Arts).

Harry N. Abrams Inc. has published a companion volume with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills and a foreword by Dr. Billington. American Treasures in the Library of Congress: Memory/Reason/Imagination ($39.95) is available in the Library sales shops and wherever books are sold. Select items from the exhibition are also available on-line at

The exhibition, made possible by a grant of $1.1 million from the Xerox Foundation, is the set piece of a yearlong celebration marking the official reopening of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building during its 100th anniversary year. The Jefferson Building, under renovation since 1984, may now be seen in its fully restored state for the first time.

The Thomas Jefferson Building is at 10 First Street S.E. It is closed on Sundays and federal holidays. Exhibition hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Due to the high number of visitors, same-day, timed-entry tickets are available free. The tickets may be obtained from 10 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. at the Visitors' Information Desk inside the ground-floor entrance of the Thomas Jefferson Building, which is barrier-free and accessible to the disabled, as is the exhibition.

Advance tickets for the exhibition may be obtained only from Ticketmaster. At Ticketmaster outlets, including Hecht's department stores in the Washington-Baltimore area, tickets are available for a $2 service charge. Ticketmaster phone charge tickets are $2.75 plus a $1.25 handling fee per order. To charge tickets by phone, call (202) 432-SEAT in Washington, D.C.; (410) 481-SEAT in Baltimore; and (703) 573-SEAT in Virginia. Out-of-state callers may dial (800) 551-SEAT toll-free.

An audio tour, available for $2.50 and featuring selections from the audio-visual holdings of the Library, will enrich the visitor's experience with an array of memories. For example, listeners can hear both narration about and the actual voices of presidents, poets and other famous figures from the Library's audio collections, including Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Frost and Woodrow Wilson. It also features music, including the voices of Beverly Sills and Jelly Roll Morton.

All groups of 10 or more are requested to call the Visitor Services Office at (202) 707-9779 to arrange a tour. For recorded information about the exhibition, call (202) 707-3834, (202) 707-6200 TTY.

Note to press: black-and-white photographs and color transparencies of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and many other items in the exhibition are available from the Public Affairs Office. Call (202) 707-9191 for delivery of duplicates.

# # #

PR 97-112
ISSN 0731-3527

Back to top