If a list were constructed of the most important Virginians in American history, George Mason would appear near the top. His influence on public policy, the Revolution, and the Constitution was far greater than his modern, meager reputation allows. He was a giant of his time. His close friendships with Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Henry, and many others from his state allowed him to influence the direction of state and federal politics. Mason was described as a private man, fundamentally disinterested and impersonal, and the perfect definition of the gentleman statesman. He was a planter, a republican, a firm defender of states’ rights and civil liberty, and one of the ablest enemies of the Constitution. He is correctly labeled the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” and though a slave holder, was an early proponent of the abolition of slavery. Mason is the antidote to the “politically correct” interpretation of the Founding generation. Perhaps that is why he is so often ignored, forgotten, or misrepresented.
George Mason was the fourth of a line of George Masons to live and prosper in northern Virginia of the American colonies. The first George Mason arrived in North America around 1651 after the Battle of Worcester, the last battle of the English Civil War, which ended in defeat for the Royalists. He was a loyal follower of King Charles II and the prototypical Virginia cavalier. He settled on his grant of 900 acres, and by the time George Mason IV was born in 1725, the Mason estate totaled 5,000 acres in Douge’s Neck, Virginia, as well as other Virginia and Maryland plantations. George Mason III, the subject’s father, died in 1735, leaving his ten-year-old son under the care of his mother and his uncle, John Mercer of Marlborough. Mercer was one of the leading attorneys in the colony, and his 1,500- volume library served as the foundation of Mason’s informal education. His mother provided private tutors for a time, but Mason was soon excelling under Mercer’s care. His mind was sharp and his intellect penetrating. Learning was one of his chief sources of pleasure, and his knowledge on legal and constitutional matters was unsurpassed, even by the supposed “genius” of his more famous countryman, James Madison.
Though Mason was never licensed to practice law, his contemporaries often called upon him to answer important legal questions throughout his life. Planting was his occupation; the law was his hobby. As the gentleman code dictated, Mason only entered the public arena when duty required. In 1748 he became a vestryman of the Truro Parish and served as one of the overseers of the poor. The following year he became a justice of the Fairfax County Court.
George Mason married Anne Eilbeck in 1750, and in 1755 he commissioned the construction of Gunston Hall for his new family (Mason and his wife would have nine surviving children). Completed in 1758, the home was one of the finest in Northern Virginia. He volunteered during the French and Indian War and received the rank of colonel as a quartermaster. He also served as a trustee for the newly formed town of Alexandria from 1754 until 1779 when the town was incorporated. The freeholders of Fairfax County elected him to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758, and he held office until 1761. Mason found political life mundane and petty and much preferred devoting his energies to making his plantation self-sufficient. He also suffered from severe gout, and he used his affliction to avoid public service when possible. He spent much of the 1760s interested in western land.
Mason became a partner in the Ohio Company in 1752. Indian problems and the British policy of discouraging western expansion after the French and Indian War curtailed the profitability of the company, but Mason still claimed around 60,000 acres of land in western Virginia and Kentucky. In Virginia, land, not goods or factories, determined status. All of Virginia’s leading men in the Founding generation owned considerable tracts of land, and most had large plantations. They were planters first, statesmen second, soldiers third. This rooted them in their community, their “country,” and helped foster the traditional, conservative, agrarian society of Virginia.
The “retired” revolutionary
George Mason did not take an active public role in most of the political conflicts of the 1760s. He preferred to remain at his plantation as a “retired” member of society, but from 1765 onward, he became an influential expositor of American grievances both through the press and in private circles. Edmund Randolph claimed Mason “was behind none of the sons of Virginia in knowledge of her history and interest. At a glance he saw to the bottom of every proposition which affected her.” He opposed the Stamp Act and wrote an open letter to British merchants under the name “A Virginia Planter” in 1766. His arguments were conservative and founded on legal precedent.
He reminded the British that “we are descended from the same stock. . . nurtured in the same principles of freedom; which we have both sucked in with our mother’s milk; that in crossing the Atlantic we have only changed our climate, not our minds, our natures and dispositions remain unaltered; that we are still the same people with them in every respect. . . . ” Mason stated, “We claim nothing but the liberty and privileges of Englishmen…we cannot be deprived of them, without our consent, but by violence and injustice; we have received them from our ancestors, and, with God’s leave, will transmit them, unimpaired, to our posterity.” He claimed to be a man in retirement without the wild impulses of “Jacobitism,” a man “who adores the wisdom and happiness of the British constitution” and who is “an Englishman in his principles.” Yet, Mason warned the merchants that an infringement upon these sacred liberties would end in “revolt.”
The Townshend Duties were less egregious to Mason, but he used Washington as a conduit to present bills to the House of Burgesses designed to temper their effects. When the governor dissolved the legislature in 1769, Mason authored a series of resolves that led to the Virginia Association, a formal agreement not to import British goods—including slaves—by Virginia. The resolves were later adopted by the First Continental Congress. But Mason, like his close friend Washington, shied away from talk of independence. His position was firm but temperate, particularly during the 1760s. He was loyal to the crown. It was not until 1774 that Mason publicly supported independence.
The Coercive Acts of 1774 led him to write the Fairfax Resolves. He wrote, “That it is our greatest wish and inclination . . . to continue our connexion with, and dependence upon, the British government; but though we are its subjects, we will use every means, which Heaven hath given us, to prevent our becoming its slaves.” He viewed the rights of Englishmen as more valuable than the British Empire. Mason, then, viewed the War for Independence as a war to maintain the rights of Englishmen in America. The Fairfax Resolves were adopted at the Virginia convention and the Continental Congress and became the leading legal justification for separation from the crown.
George Mason returned to public life in 1775. He served at both Virginia conventions and in 1776 framed the Virginia Declaration of Rights and most of the new Virginia constitution. Jefferson borrowed much of the language from the Declaration of Rights in drafting the Declaration of Independence, and the document also served as the foundation for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. Mason declared, “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.” He insisted, “A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained in arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state. . . . ” Mason argued that “the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments,” and that religious liberty should be preserved “unless, under color of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or the safety of society. And that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.” Notice that Mason did not claim the militia was a pseudo “National Guard.” It was “composed of the body of the people,” you and me. He emphasized “Christian” principles in his declaration of religious freedom and emphasized property as a pre-requisite for “happiness and safety.”
How politically incorrect can you get? His statements on religious liberty and gun rights are usually ignored and discounted, but in the eighteenth century, members of the Founding generation considered them the perfect expression of their rights and privileges as Englishmen. They could not be separated or reduced. They were the rights of free men, free societies, and free states. And his claim that all men were “equally free and independent” was qualified by “when they enter into a state of society.” Only freeholders were citizens “in a state of society.” Citizenship, as in the ancient republics, was a privilege, not a right.
His version of the Virginia constitution “swallowed up all the rest.” Mason set the intellectual foundations of the new republic. The 1776 Virginia constitution was classically republican and derived from the traditional models. It divided and limited power in an attempt to restrict the potential for corruption and abuse. He included property qualifications for members of the legislature, and the document was designed to maintain the social order of Virginia.
He served in the Virginia legislature for most of the war. Mason worked to reform the laws of Virginia, mostly through insisting on the preservation of the English common law. He helped organize the state militia and the supply and recruitment of troops for the Continental Army. Along with Patrick Henry he organized the western expedition of George Rogers Clark in 1779. Clark and Mason were “like father and son,” and Clark’s accounts from the western territories were first sent to Mason. In 1773, Mason defended Virginia’s claim to the western territory in a document entitled Extracts from the Virginia Charters. This was used as the justification for the Clark expedition and boundary settlement with the British at the conclusion of the War for Independence in 1783.
“Objections to the Federal Constitution”
George Mason again retired from public life in 1780. He continued to work behind the scenes in support of various projects, including the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia. When the problems of debt, commerce, and war began to hinder the effectiveness of the Articles of Confederation, Mason supported the strengthening of the central government. He attended the Mount Vernon Conference in 1785 and was appointed to the Annapolis Convention in 1786, but did not attend. When Virginia chose delegates for the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, Mason was regarded as a lock.
He ventured to Philadelphia in general accord with Madison and supported the initial proposals of the Virginia Plan. But when the convention dragged on for weeks and then months, he began to question the motives of the nationalists. Mason attended every session and spoke more than 140 times. He opposed the direct election of the executive, and as in Virginia, favored property qualifications for senators. But he was alarmed by proposals to abolish the states, feared that the executive was too strong, and thought that proposals for taxing exports and the creation of a standing army infringed upon the basic premises of liberty. Mason began the proceedings fully expecting to sign the new Constitution, but on 31 August 1787, he declared his intention to oppose ratification at all costs, insisting that “he would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.”
Mason returned to Virginia after voting against the final draft of the Constitution and quickly issued an explanation, later published in newspapers and in a handbill under the title Objections to the Federal Constitution, as to why he declined to sign the document. “There is no declaration of rights,” he said, “and, the laws of the general government being paramount to the laws and constitutions of the several states, the declarations of rights in the separate states are no security.” He feared the strength of the judicial power—“The judiciary of the United States is so constructed and extended as to absorb and destroy the judiciaries of the several states”—the powers of the executive branch, namely the power to make treaties and the “unrestrained power of granting pardon for treason,” and reasoned that the five Southern states would be subjected to commercial and economic abuse by the eight states of the North and East, “whose produce and circumstances are totally different” from the South.
He closed by prognosticating that “this government will commence in a moderate aristocracy: it is at present impossible to foresee whether it will, in its operation, produce a monarchy or a corrupt oppressive aristocracy,” but he assumed it would “terminate in one or the other.” His old friends and allies Washington and Madison were angered and shocked by his public declaration. He would only get more aggressive.
George Mason and Patrick Henry formed the backbone of the opposition at the Virginia Ratifying Convention. Mason dressed in black and, like a skilled surgeon, cut the Constitution apart piece by piece. The Constitution as designed would “annihilate totally the State Governments,” and he questioned, “Will powers remain to the States which are not expressly guarded and reserved?” He feared the Northern and Eastern states would destroy the institution of slavery in the South without any written protection for the institution, dreaded the judicial power which “goes to everything,” and argued that the South would be subjected to “stockjobbers” and the interests of the Northern merchant class. As to the Framers, he stated, “They have done what they ought not to have done, and have left undone what they ought to have done.”
Because of the bludgeoning Mason administered to the final document, Madison agreed to present a number of amendments to the Constitution in the first Congress, and Virginia conditionally ratified the document by a close margin. Mason still voted against it. His recommendations resulted in the Bill of Rights, but other recommendations, such as a greater restriction on the power of the judiciary, were unsuccessful. He retired for the final time after the convention and rejected several offers to serve in the United States Senate. He preferred plantation life among his family to any public service, though he did write to his son shortly before his death that his public career “has been such as will administer comfort to me when I shall most want it and smooth the bed of death.” Mason died in 1792 unaware that many of his dreaded prophecies of the future would come to fruition.
Politically correct attacks against Mason typically center on his apparent inconsistencies in regard to slavery. They emphasize that he argued for constitutional protections of the institution yet in the same breath called the slave trade “diabolical in itself and disgraceful to mankind.” This was not uncommon for Virginians of his generation. There was a difference between slavery and the foreign slave trade. Only Northern merchants and Deep South rice and cotton growers (some of whom were Northern transplants) insisted on continuing the foreign slave trade. Virginians did not. They recognized the inherent evils of slavery, particularly the foreign slave trade, and regarded it as bane on society, though they did not know how to eradicate the institution without destroying their way of life.
George Mason, in fact, wrote several proposals for the extermination of the institution, but his ideas followed his specific belief in the rights of life, liberty, and property. Mason favored manumission, but not before slaves were educated so that the freedmen could maintain their liberty. He also wanted government to respect the rights of property and favored legal protection of the institution so that slave holders would be compensated should the institution be terminated. This would prevent a large percentage of Southern capital from evaporating. Great Britain followed the same path toward emancipation in 1833. His statements during the Virginia Convention have also received much scrutiny. Mason desired an end to the slave trade and believed the union would be better off without it, and argued that the Constitution as written would not allow the trade to expire before 1808 regardless of amendment. His statements in regard to the protection of slavery, however, have been used against him, most skillfully by Joseph Ellis in his Founding Brothers.
Ellis correctly states that Mason voted against the Constitution, “in part,” because of a compromise between the North and South over the slave trade and taxation, but he never explores the second part. Readers assume that slavery was the chief cause of his opposition. In fact, Mason was just as opposed to the powers given to the central government to tax and regulate commerce as he was to the slave trade. Northern merchants could tax the South out of existence—and for what benefit to the South: the continuation of the “diabolical” slave trade? To Mason the “compromise” hardly seemed fair or expedient.
Ellis accuses Mason of being disingenuous, but by reading his complete opposition to the document, not cherry-picking what he said in reference to slavery, one can only conclude that Mason was consistent. He feared what centralization and Northern dominance could do to the states and to his region. Slavery was simply one component of the bigger picture.
As he said on 7 June 1787, “Whatever power may be necessary for the National Government a certain portion must necessarily be left in the States. It is impossible for one power to pervade the extreme parts of the U.S. so as to carry equal justice to them.” The Southern agrarian order, in his mind, would always be under assault from Northern and urban interests. George Mason, like so many of his Virginia contemporaries, believed that liberty was best guarded by the states and that a man’s true nation was his state.
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