|George Mason: The Reluctant Founder|
It is hard to explain why George Mason has not attained the status of a cultural icon that Americans have bestowed on his Virginia colleagues such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. His contemporaries certainly recognized his many talents and his historic achievements. Edmund Randolph, Virginia's governor, said that Mason ranked "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."1 A present-day historian writes that Mason was "widely acknowledged as having the most profound understanding of republican government of any man in Virginia. Madison and Jefferson always deferred to him as their mentor on matters of political theory."2
Why, then, is Mason less celebrated as a "Founding Father" and as a "Framer of the Constitution"? Why are Mason's contributions to political thought less well known? There are a number of reasons. First, most Americans know little about him, except that he refused to sign the Constitution when it was completed at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. They are unaware of his reasons for refusing to sign. They do not know the important role he played in seeing that the Bill of Rights were added to the Constitution by the First Congress in 1791.
A second reason is that all but a very modest number of his papers have disappeared, hindering the work of would-be biographers and interested citizens.3 A third reason may stem from Mason's personal characteristics. Mason did not suffer fools gladly. Patience was not one of his hallmarks. He has been described as "the sharp-spoken planter."4 Mason was bored by legislative routines. He disliked committee work. He also shunned political office whenever possible. His ideal was that of a Roman patriot-citizen. Small wonder, then, that one of Mason's few biographers entitled his book George Mason: Reluctant Statesman.5
Mason's Early Life
A fourth-generation American, Mason was born in Virginia in 1725. His father was drowned in an accident when Mason was just ten years old. His mother, Ann Thompson Mason, was left with three children. George was the oldest of the children. His mother was a very capable woman who continued to run the family estates with efficiency and profitably.
Mason was largely self-educated. He read widely in the library of his uncle, John Mercer, becoming a self-taught lawyer.
At age twenty-one, Mason inherited his father's large estate. It consisted of thousands of acres of farmland in Virginia and Maryland, as well as thousands of acres of uncleared land in the western country. Mason also inherited his father's slaves—said to number about three hundred.6
Mason hated slavery, however. Like most of the nation's Founders, he thought it was wrong and favored its abolition through a plan of compensation and gradual emancipation. More will be said about his and other Founders' views on slavery later.
In 1750, Mason married Ann Eilbeck. He was twenty-four and she was just sixteen years of age. When she died of a fever in 1773, Mason was left with nine children. A devoted and conscientious father, Mason took a keen interest in their upbringing and their education. He did not want to be away from them for long periods of time. That was one of the more pressing reasons that he refused to run for political office.7
Mason Writes the Influential Fairfax Resolves
As the crisis between the American colonies and Britain grew, Mason became more involved. He gravitated from the periphery to the center of colonial resistance. In 1774, Mason wrote the Fairfax Resolves, which his neighbor, colleague, and friend, George Washington, introduced into the House of Burgesses on July 18, 1774. The Fairfax Resolves were intended, Washington explained, to "defend our Constitutional Rights" and to set forth our fundamental principles.
A nineteenth-century historian described the Fairfax Resolves as Mason's "First great movement on the theatre of the Revolution." Similar resolves from some thirty-one counties survive, but the Fairfax Resolves were the most detailed and the most influential.8 Here are some of the twenty-four propositions or fundamental principles included in the Fairfax Resolves:
Mason concluded the Fairfax Resolves with an especially hard-hitting paragraph:
Resolved that the powers over the people of America now claimed by the British House of Commons, in whose election we have no share, on whose determinations we can have no influence, whose information must be always defective and often false...and who are removed from those impressions of tenderness and compassion arising from personal intercourse and connections, which soften the rigours of the most despotic governments, must—if continued, establish the most grievous and intolerable species of tyranny and oppression that ever was inflicted upon mankind.9
Mason and the Virginia Declaration of Rights
Virginia, the oldest and largest of the original states, adopted a Declaration of Rights on June 12, 1776. Two weeks later, it adopted its "Constitution and Form of Government." The primary author of both documents was George Mason. He intended the Declaration of Rights to serve as a preamble to the Constitution.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights has been called "the most influential constitutional document in American history."10 Its influence has extended not only to the Declaration of Independence, but also to many state constitutions and the federal Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. The Declaration's influence can be seen in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). In fact, members of the French Assembly frequently consulted with Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence. Jefferson himself had drawn heavily on the Virginia Declaration. The influence of the Virginia Declaration continues to this day as a goal toward which many peoples aspire.11
In writing the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason drew on a long tradition of statements of rights and liberty from the Magna Carta (1215) to the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 and John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690).
The Virginia Declaration opened with these words:
That 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.12Among the important principles set forth in the Declaration are these:
When any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.
Mason also included a number of rights to which all individuals are entitled. In particular, he listed rights of those accused of capital or criminal offenses. They included such rights as trial by an impartial jury, the right of the accused to be confronted by witnesses and/or accusers, and the right to be free from excessive bail and fines, as well as from cruel and unusual punishments.
These rights later were incorporated in other state constitutions and in the United States Constitution. They also are incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948.13
Mason concluded the Virginia Declaration of Rights with the following reminder and warning. It has become famous and is frequently translated and quoted throughout the world.
That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtues and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.14
Mason and Slavery
As a fourth-generation Virginian, Mason was brought up among slaves and he was dependent on their labor. Mason had very conflicting opinions about slavery, and, over time, he came to believe that it was wrong. He predicted that slavery would "bring the judgment of heaven" on the country if it were not discontinued. Like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, Mason agonized over slavery and what to do to bring about its end for many years.
Washington expressed his concerns many times. In his letters he said, "There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery." Washington believed that slavery was a cancer on the body politic of America, but he continued that "to get slaves afloat at once would I believe be productive of much inconvenience and mischief; but, by degrees, it certainly might and assuredly ought to be effected, and that, too, by legislative authority."15
Jefferson, like Washington, wrote that "there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity." Then he added, on second thought, "But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale and self-preservation in the other."16
James Madison also expressed his abhorrence of slavery throughout his life. In a speech at the Philadelphia Convention, he lamented that "we have seen the mere distinction of colour, made in the most enlightened period of times, a ground for the most oppressive domination ever exercised by man over man."17 Later, in a letter, Madison wrote, "The magnitude of this evil [slavery] among us is so deeply felt and so universally acknowledged that no merit could be greater than that of devising a satisfactory remedy for it."18
Although his contemporaries often addressed the issue of slavery, no one was more relentless, perhaps, than George Mason. His first known written attack on the institution of slavery was contained in a protest against the Stamp Act in 1765.19
Mason's "scheme" began with an antislavery preamble. He faulted the British for not encouraging the "importance of free people" and not discouraging the importation of slaves. He claimed that "half of our best lands...remain unsettled, and the other half cultivated with slaves." Slavery not only discouraged settlement, but it undermined the character of whites. Pointing to the reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, Mason continued:
The ill effect such a practice has on the morals and manners of our people: one of the first signs of the decay, and perhaps the primary cause of the destruction of the most flourishing government that ever existed was the introduction of great numbers of slaves—an evil very pathetically described by Roman Historians—but 'tis not the present intention to expose our weakness by examining this subject too freely.20
Time and again throughout his lifetime, Mason would return to two themes first developed in his scheme—the dangers to a nation posed by slavery and the ways in which slavery affected the "morals and manners" of the people who held slaves. His most famous speech using that theme was an impassioned warning at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Mason launched his attack on the slave trade, which he called "that infernal traffic." He again claimed that "the British government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it." In making that claim, Mason had no more than half of the truth on his side. He then moved on to conclude with a stern warning.21
Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.... Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.
Twenty-two years earlier, in 1773, Mason had written a longer essay in which he condemned slavery in even stronger terms.
That slow poison...is daily contaminating the minds and morals or our people. Every gentleman here is born a petty tyrant. Practiced in acts of despotism and cruelty, we become callous to the dictates of humanity, and all the finer feelings of the soul. Taught to regard a part of our own species in the most abject and contemptible degree below us, we lose that idea of dignity of man which the hand of nature has implanted in us for great and useful purposes.22
Mason's aversion to slavery and his vigorous condemnation of the institution remained a constant throughout his life. Even so, Mason never moved beyond condemning it in speeches and writing. Unlike Washington, he never freed his slaves nor did he make provisions to support them.23
Slavery was not confined to the South. It was well entrenched in the North. New York and New Jersey retained significant slave populations. Even in the late 1790s, one in five New York City households kept domestic slaves, while slaves worked on the farms on many Hudson River estates, along with white tenant farmers.
Northern Founders and Framers were no less conflicted about slavery, although some took a more active role in trying to end it. Benjamin Franklin began, as early as 1729, printing Quaker tracts against slavery and the slave trade. In his later years, Franklin became a courageous, outspoken president of the Pennsylvania's abolition society. Nonetheless, as biographer Edmund Morgan has noted, "not until late in life did it [slavery] begin to trouble his conscience."
John Adams never owned a slave. He denounced slavery as a "foul contagion in the human character." Even so, Adams did not always translate his beliefs into practice. "As a lawyer, he occasionally defended slaves, but as a politician he made no effort to loosen the shackles of those in bondage." Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and William Livingston not only were outspoken opponents of slavery, they were founding members of the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. Founded on January 25, 1785, its members were outraged by the rampant kidnapping of free blacks on New York streets who were then sold into slavery.
The New York Manumission Society, as it was known for short, conducted a wide-ranging campaign against slavery. It held lectures, distributed essays, and established a registry to prevent free blacks from being dragged back into slavery. The New York Manumission Society also set up the African Free School to teach black students. Older boys were taught carpentry and navigation. Older girls were taught dressmaking and embroidery.
The society's minutes make clear that Hamilton, Jay and others were more than just celebrities lending their names and prestige to a worthy cause. They formed a committee that signed petitions and lobbied the New York state legislature to end the slave trade. They called it a practice "so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent with the liberty and justice which should distinguish a free and enlightened people."
Why Were the Founders Unable to Eliminate Slavery?
Several of the nation's leading historians have reflected on the reasons that the Founders were unable to eliminate slavery. Bernard Bailyn, winner of Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes, contends that the idea of abolitionism did not exist in the era of the American Revolution.
Slavery was brutal and degrading, but as far as the colonists knew, slavery in one form or another had always existed, and if it was brutal and degrading, so too was much else of ordinary life at the lower levels of society. Only gradually did people come to see that slavery was a peculiarly degrading and a uniquely brutalizing institution.
Bailyn contends that "to condemn the Founders...for having tolerated and perpetuated a society that rested on slavery is to expect them to have been able to transcend altogether the limitations of their own age."24 Bailyn points out that
what is significant in the historical context of the time is not that the liberty-loving Revolutionaries allowed slavery to survive, but that they—even those who profited directly from the institution—went so far in condemning it, confining it, and setting in motion the forces that would ultimately destroy it.25
Another historian, R.B. Bernstein, Distinguished Professor of Law at New York Law School, writes that "though the modern indictment of the founding fathers rests on the bedrock principle of equality before the law, we may well have more in common with them in their responses to the challenge of equality than we may want to admit."26
Bernstein contends that abolitionism did not exist in the era of the Revolution and the early republic although considerable antislavery feelings did. "As the contrast between an ideology of liberty and the reality of slavery become starker, a growing number of Americans began to express distaste, moral qualms, and even outright revulsion toward slavery."27
Mason opposed any mention of slavery in the Constitution as degrading to the document. He bitterly opposed the compromise that gave protection for twenty years to the slave trade. It was on September 12, 1787, however, that Mason opened what one historian termed "a political Pandora's box."28 The weary delegates were ready to conclude their work and return home. They had written and rewritten sections of Constitution. Fatigue had overtaken them when Mason arose to say that he wished the Constitution had been prefaced by a Bill of Rights. He added that using the state bills of rights as models, "a bill might be prepared in a few hours," and that it "would give great quiet to the people." Not a single state delegation voted in favor of Mason's motion, however. Because the convention debates had been secret, the public was not aware of any disagreement related to a bill of rights until the delegates adjourned. Nor was the public aware that George Mason and two other delegates had refused to sign the document.29
Within a few hours after the ceremonial signing of the Constitution, Mason shared his list of objections with a few other public men who were displeased with the final draft. In fact, he made several copies for his friends before he left Philadelphia. One copy found its way into a print shop. At first, Mason was distressed that his objections had been printed without his approval. Then, on second thought, he believed it was a good idea. In fact, he even sent a copy of the pamphlet on to his friend and neighbor, George Washington. Washington, in turn, sent the pamphlet on to James Madison with the note that "to alarm the people seems to be ground work of his [Mason's] plan."30
Mason began his objections with a short sentence that became a rallying cry for the Anti-Federalists: "There is no Declaration of Rights."31 Mason concluded his objections with this warning:
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: it will most probably vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate in the one or the other.32Why did the Constitutional Convention omit a bill of rights? No delegate opposed one in principle. As Washington informed the Marquis de Lafayette, "There was not a member of the Convention, I believe, who had the least objection to what is contended for in a Bill of Rights."33
Mason's opening paragraph probably struck the most damaging blow to the Constitution as it went to the states for ratification. Mason's one-sentence alarm, "there is no Declaration of Rights," soon filled Anti-Federalist newspapers. Some Anti-Federalists began to talk about the need for "necessary amendments" or "for a second Convention" to correct the Constitution's errors. In retrospect, some historians have called the omission of a bill of rights "the greatest blunder" that occurred in Philadelphia.
Mason at the Virginia Ratification Convention
When Mason returned home at the end of the Philadelphia Convention, he was sixty-two years old. That was a fairly advanced age for the late 1770s. He had been gone more than four months and he was eager to be at home and attend needs at his plantation. Nonetheless, he agreed to serve in the Virginia Ratification Convention. It met in Richmond on June 2, 1788.
Mason once again proved to be one of the most active delegates.34 He immediately moved that the convention consider the Constitution clause by clause, because he believed that would highlight what he considered to be the defects of the Constitution.
The clause-by-clause consideration was considered both then and later as a tactical error. It gave the advantage to James Madison and young John Marshall, both Federalists. Clause-by-clause debate rendered Patrick Henry's angry, soaring oratory less effective.
Mason raised a number of issues in the course of the debates. He spoke about taxation. He feared that a federal tax on slaves would put a disproportionate share of the tax burden on the South. In two lengthy speeches, Mason objected to federal control of militias. He warned that Congress might make service in the militias unattractive as a pretext for establishing a standing army. One of Mason's longest speeches was an attack on the federal judiciary. Its broad scope, he said, not only would render state courts unnecessary, "it will destroy the state governments." Finally, Mason suggested that federal courts be limited to matters of international law, maritime concerns, and suits involving the United States and two or more states. His most surprising proposal was his willingness to let state judges decide ordinary matters of federal law.35
Mason's most productive role was played off the convention floor helping to draft possible amendments to the Constitution. Many of those amendments were drawn from the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
James Madison acknowledged that there was no denying the Constitution was imperfect. Even its firmest supporters said it had defects. The Federalists, however, did not think that those flaws were so damaging that they had to be rectified before the Constitution went into effect and before experience showed that amendments were indeed necessary.36 In the end, the Virginia Convention accepted the unamended Constitution, 89 to 79.
An unhappy Mason returned to Gunston Hall. He was in poor health, but when William Grayson died shortly after he had been elected to the U.S. Senate, the Virginia state legislature offered Mason the Senate seat. Mason, who all his life had scorned political office, declined. He died quietly on October 7, 1792. He was sixty-six years old.
George Mason has been called "an almost forgotten man in the pantheon of
revolutionary heroes." Although a large state university bears his name, his statue stands on the statehouse grounds in Richmond, and his portrait hangs in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., he is more often remembered for refusing to sign the Constitution at the conclusion of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 than for his many contributions to this nation.
Pauline Maier, professor of American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently summed up why Mason deserves a place in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes:
George Mason was not a dissident by nature. He was a builder, not a naysayer, the man who drafted Virginia's first state constitution and the powerfully influential declaration of rights enacted in early June of 1776, whose affirmation that "all men are born equally free and independent" found its way, with some variations into several other state bills of rights, as well the Declaration of Independence.... He supported resistance to British taxation and drafted the powerful Fairfax County Resolves of 1774.... His work on Virginia's constitution and declaration of rights earn him a fame that he, unlike other members of his generation, did not crave. He once described himself as a man who seldom meddled in public affairs, "content with the blessings of a public station" without regard for "the smiles and frowns of the great."37
About the AuthorMargaret Stimmann Branson is an associate director of the Center for Civic Education.
1 Randolph quoted in Warren M. Billings, “Virginians and the Origins of the Bill of Rights,” in The Bill of Rights and the States: The Colonial and Revolutionary Origins of American Liberties, ed., Patrick T. Conley and John P. Kaminski (Madison, Wisconsin: Madison House, 1992), 337.2 Ralph Ketcham, James Madison, A Biography (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 71.
3 No single collection contains all of the Mason papers. The Library of Congress holds a significant amount of Mason materials, but its collection is far from comprehensive.
4 Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 54.
5 See Robert A. Rutland, George Mason: Reluctant Statesman (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston), 1961.
6 See Dennis J. Mahoney, “George Mason,” in Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, ed. Leonard W. Levy, Kenneth Karst and Dennis J. Mahoney, Vols. 3 and 4 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986), 1,223.
7 Mason had very pronounced views on parenthood. He proposed extending suffrage to landless men who were the parents of at least three children. He argued that parenthood, as well as land ownership, gave citizens a sufficient stake in society to justify granting them the right to vote. See Jeff Broadwater, George Mason: Forgotten Founder (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 93-4.
8 For the full text of the Fairfax Resolves see Philip P. Kurland and Ralph Lerner, ed., The Founders Constitution, Vol.1: Major Themes (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1986), 633-4.
10 Josephine F. Pacheco, ed., Antifederalism: The Legacy of George Mason (Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press, 1992), 20.
11 For complete text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), see Milton Viorst, The Great Documents of Western Civilization (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965), 189-92.
12 For complete text of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, see The Founders Constitution.
13 See especially Amendments IV through VIII of the U.S. Constitution. See also Articles 1 through 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
14 See Resolve #15 in the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
15 George Washington, Letter to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786. Reprinted in Buckner F. Melton Jr., ed., The Quotable Founding Father (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books), 296.
16 Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Monticello, September 10, 1814, and to John Holmes, Monticello, April 22, 1820. Both reprinted in John P. Kaminski, ed., The Quotable Jefferson (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006), 377-8. For more on Jefferson’s views on slavery, see Garrett Word Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).
17 Madison’s Speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787, Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series.
18 James Madison to Francis Wright, September 1, 1825, Library of Congress, Madison Papers. For more on Madison’s views on slavery and the efforts he made to end it, particularly during his retirement, see Sheldon, G.W., The Political Philosophy of James Madison (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).
19 “Scheme for replevying goods and distresses for rent.” See Broadwater, op cit 33.
21 For full text of Mason’s speech see Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Vol 2 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1966), 364.
22 For full text of this essay, see Helen Hill Miller, George Mason, Gentleman Revolutionary (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 55-6.
23 For the complete text of Washington’s will, in which he made provisions for their freedom and for their support, see Susan Dunn, ed., Something That Will Surprise the World: The Essential Writings of the Founding Fathers (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 98-100.
24 See Bernard Bailyn, Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Theme in the Struggle for American Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), Chapter 9, "The Central Themes of the American Revolution," especially pp. 220-4.
25 Ibid. 222.
26 See R.B. Bernstein, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Note especially Chapter 3, “Achievements and Challenges: The History the Founding Fathers Made,” 95-102.
27 Ibid. 98.
28 Robert A. Rutland, “Framing and Identifying the First Ten Amendments,” in The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution, op. cit. 305.
29 Edmund Randolph of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts were the other two who refused to sign.
30 Washington to Madison, Oct. 10, 1787, Madison Papers, Vol. 10, 190.
31 For complete text of “George Mason: Objections to the Proposed Constitution,” see Cecelia M. Kenyon, The Antifederalists (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Northeastern University Press, 1985), 191-5.
32 Ibid 195.
33 Washington quoted in Leonard W. Levy, Origins of the Bill of Rights (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 14.
34 For a more detailed account of Mason’s role in the ratification debates in Virginia, see Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
35 For a more detailed account of Mason's role in the Virginia Ratification Convention, see Broadwater op. cit. 223-7.
36 Maier. op. cit. 298.
37 Maier. op. cit. 39-40.