George Mason and the Bills of Rights

Mr. Williams is a librarian and freelance writer living in Ohio.

The Bill of Rights received a lot of attention during its recent 200th anniversary, but little recognition was given to George Mason, who was the driving force behind the document. Mason (1725-1792) was the author of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, which the Marquis de Condorcet called “the first Bill of Rights to merit the name.” Mason fought against ratification of the United States Constitution because it contained no bill of rights. As a leader of the Anti-Federalists, his objections led to the first 10 amendments, which were ratified in 1791.

Mason is relatively unknown among the Founders, but his intellect was renowned as one of the finest in the colonies. In fact, Thomas Jefferson called Mason “the wisest man of his generation.” Fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph added: “He 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.” James Madison praised Mason as “a powerful reasoner, a profound statesman, and a devoted republican.”

That this plantation owner and neighbor of George Washington was not well-known outside his native Virginia was due to his reluctance to become involved in politics. Mason had a distaste for committee work and a contempt for what he called the “babblers” who predominated in politics. In his will he advised his heirs to prefer “the happiness and independence [of] a private station to the troubles and vexations of public business” unless “the necessity of the times should engage them in public affairs.”

Mason turned down appointments to the Continental Congress and the U.S. Senate, but the needs of his turbulent times did cause him to leave home on two significant occasions. From 1775 to 1780, he served reluctantly in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he took a leading role in every aspect of formulating a new state government and almost single-handedly wrote the state constitution and the Declaration of Rights. The second occasion was in 1787, when Mason was persuaded to leave his native state to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Here he was one of the five most frequent speakers, arguing passionately for individual freedoms and against centralized governmental authority. His prescient objections ring no less true today, and his refusal to sign the final document helped bring attention to the need for a bill of rights.

George Mason was born in 1725 on a plantation on the Potomac in Fairfax County, Virginia. He was the fourth in a line of George Masons who had established considerable landholdings in the Virginia colony. When George was 10, his father drowned in a Potomac sailing accident, and his barrister uncle, John Mercer, took over as Mason’s tutor. Mercer had one of the most extensive libraries in the colonies, and Mason immersed himself in its collected wisdom. He had virtually no formal schooling and essentially educated himself from his uncle’s library.

Upon attaining his majority, Mason took over the administration of his self-sufficient plantation. He actively supervised every detail, as well as the design of Gunston Hall, the home he built. Mason even spelled out how the mortar was to be mixed to best keep out “those pernicious little vermin, the cockroaches.”

Mason married Ann Eilbeck in 1750, and their union produced nine children. The squire of Gunston Hall took his place in plantation society and was well liked by all, despite a tendency toward hypochondria and a sometimes irascible personality.

 

Public Life

What first drew Mason into public life was involvement as an officer in the Ohio Company, a group of local land speculators that included his friend and neighbor, George Washington. At the time, British royal policy prohibited settlement west of the Appalachians, and the Ohio Company lobbied to open the West for settlement. When war broke out on the frontier, Mason acted as supply agent for troops commanded by Washington. This service in the French and Indian War earned Mason the rank of colonel in the Virginia Militia, although he never served in the field.

It was oppressive British tax policies that got Mason involved in the political arena. New and steeper taxes imposed by the ministers of George III led to Mason’s writing in 1766 an open letter “To the Committee of Merchants in London” that was published in the London Public Ledger. Later, when taxation grew even harsher, Mason became involved in the intercolonial Committees of Correspondence and the drafting of non-importation resolves that were boycotts of British products.

In the midst of this burgeoning conflict, Mason’s wife died in 1773 after a lingering illness. Her death at age 39 left Mason with nine children to raise as well as a plantation to run, yet he continued his anti-taxation efforts. In July 1774, Mason and Patrick Henry spent the night at Mount Vernon, where Mason wrote the Fairfax Resolves, a statement of the colonists’ position. The next day, Washington left to carry the document to the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress.

When Washington was named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775, Mason was prevailed upon to take his friend’s seat in the Virginia legislature. What he first saw of what he called the “parties and factions which prevailed” did little to allay his suspicions of government service. He wrote Washington that “I was never in so disagreeable a situation, and almost despaired of a cause which I saw so ill conducted. Mere vexation and disgust threw me into such an ill state of health that before the convention rose, I was sometimes near fainting in the House.” However, he did concede that “after some weeks, the babblers were pretty well silenced [and] a few weighty members began to take the lead.”

Mason continued to serve reluctantly in the assembly, although he regularly arrived late for sessions, on one occasion giving as an excuse a bad reaction to a smallpox inoculation. However, once he arrived, no other legislator was as prolific, respected, or thorough.

At the time of the revolution, Virginia was basically instituting a new government, as were all the colonies, and Mason had a hand in every major facet. During one session, John Augustine Washington, brother of George, wrote to Richard Henry Lee, “I have not yet heard particularly what our Assembly are about; but it is said it will be a short session, unless Colonel Mason who is not yet got down, should carve out more business for them than they have yet thought of.” Mason’s fiscal acumen also was widely respected. George Washington wrote: “It is much to be wished that a remedy could be applied to the depreciation of our currency. I know of no person better qualified to do this than Colonel Mason and shall be very happy to hear that he has taken it in hand.”

 

The Virginia Bill of Rights

But the most significant contribution Mason made to the fledgling state government was writing a constitution and bill of rights during a six-week period in May and June of 1776. Mason’s readings in history had convinced him that “there never was a government over a very extensive country without destroying the liberties of the people,” and he sought to remedy that with a declaration of rights. A committee was assigned to do the writing, but except for Madison’s insertion of stronger wording on freedom of religion, the words are entirely Mason’s. Some of Mason’s phrases appear in the U.S. Bill of Rights that passed 15 years later. The idea as well as the wording caught on, and by the end of 1776 five colonies had adopted declarations of rights, and by 1783 every state had some form of a bill of rights.

Mason’s hand was clearly the guiding force behind this process. Edmund Pendleton, president of the Virginia Assembly, wrote to Jefferson, who was in Philadelphia working on the Declaration of Independence, that “the political cooks are busy in preparing the dish, and as Colonel Mason seems to have the ascendancy in the great work, I have sanguine hopes it will be framed so as to answer its end.”

Edmund Randolph said that of all the plans being discussed, “those proposed by George Mason swallowed up all the rest.” Nearly 50 years later, Jefferson added, “the fact is unquestionable that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of Virginia were drawn originally by George Mason.”

The Declaration of Rights was approved by the Assembly on June 12, 1776, and 17 days later Mason had a final draft of the state constitution approved by that body. Although he remained in the legislature four more years and influenced nearly all major bills, Mason never made a more important contribution than authoring the first American document that limited the authority of governments and strengthened the rights of individuals.

By 1780, Mason felt the new government was on firm foundation and he could safely leave office. In that year, he remarried and retired to Gunston Hall, letting it be known that he would consider any effort to draft him back into the legislature as “an oppressive and unjust invasion of my personal liberty.”

But Mason was too respected, important, and opinionated to stay retired. At first, he spoke out from Gunston Hall on certain issues. In particular, he felt that American debts to British merchants should be honored, as the Revolution had not been fought merely to elude creditors.

Since Gunston Hall was located on the road from Richmond to Philadelphia, leaders on the way from one capital to another began to stop and seek Mason’s counsel. In 1783, when debate was going on over revising the Articles of Confederation, the wisest minds sought to involve Mason again. Jefferson wrote to Madison asking if he had stopped by Gunston Hall on his way home from the Continental Congress: “You have seen G. M., I hope, and had much conversation with him. What are his sentiments on the amendment of our constitution? What amendments would he approve? Is he determined to sleep on, or will he rouse and be active?”

Madison replied, “I took Colonel Mason in my way and had an evening’s conversation with him . . . on the article of convention for revising our form of government, he was sound and ripe and I think would not decline participation in such a work.” Shortly afterward, Mason was part of a panel that negotiated a Potomac navigation agreement between Virginia and Maryland, which served as a sign that cooperation between states could be achieved and that Mason was ready to come out of retirement.

 

Drafting the Constitution

When the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called, Mason agreed to go to Philadelphia as one of Virginia’s delegates. He arrived on May 17, typically the last of his delegation to arrive, and lost no time in complaining. He had been in town less than two weeks when he wrote to his son that he had begun “to grow heartily tired of the etiquette and nonsense so fashionable in this city.”

Yet for once Mason was impressed by his peers, writing that “America has certainly, upon this occasion, drawn forth her first characters.” He was also impressed by the seriousness of the business at hand, noting that “the eyes of the United States are turned upon this assembly, . . . may God grant that we may be able to gratify them, by establishing a wise and just government.”

Throughout the convention, Mason consistently spoke out in favor of the rights of individuals and the states as opposed to the federal government. He spoke out strongly against a 10-mile-square federal district that ironically came to be located just a few miles from his home. Concerning the proposed District of Columbia, Mason said: “This ten miles square may set at defiance the laws of the surrounding states and may . . . become the sanctuary of the blackest crimes! Here the federal courts are to sit . . . what sort of jury shall we have within the ten miles square? The immediate creatures of government!”

Mason also spoke out in favor of popular elections, unrestricted admission of new Western states, and in favor of a three-part executive. As the summer wore on, compromises were reached on most major issues, but a growing Federalist consensus began to emerge. What finally turned Mason against the proceedings were decisions reached on a bill of rights and on slavery.

Although a lifelong slaveholder, Mason abhorred the institution, feeling that “every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.” He favored abolition as soon as it was economically feasible and wished to halt all future importation of slaves. However, a hasty compromise was worked out permitting the slave trade to continue for another 20 years.

This compromise upset Mason, and he wrote bitterly to Jefferson of “the precipitate, and not to say indecent, manner in which the business was conducted, during the last week of the Convention, after the patrons of this new plan found they had a decided majority in their favor, which was attained by a compromise between the Eastern and the two Southern states to permit the latter to continue the importation of slaves for twenty odd years; a more favorite object with them than the liberty and happiness of the people.”

For Mason, the last straw came on September 12, 1787, when his proposal to include a bill of rights in the new Constitution was defeated 10 states to none. Not even Mason’s offer to write an immediate version himself was enough to sway the delegates who were impatient to wrap up matters and go home. The convention also voted down Mason’s proposal to hold a second convention, and Mason declared he could not support the final version. “Colonel Mason left Philadelphia in an exceeding ill humor indeed,” Madison wrote to Jefferson, and Mason was not present when the other delegates signed on September 17.

Instead, Mason was one of the leaders in the fight against ratification of the new Constitution. He composed a three-page list of objections, and, after dutifully forwarding a copy to George Washington, published them in the Pennsylvania Packet on October 4. This publication served as a counter to the Federalist Papers that were written during the ratification fight.

Foremost among Mason’s objections was that “there is no Declaration of Rights, and the laws of the general government being paramount to the laws and constitution of the several states, the Declaration of Rights in the separate states are no security.” There were several other objections raised as well, but it was the lack of a bill of rights that was seized as a rallying point for the Anti-Federalists.

Nine of the 13 states were needed for ratification, and the fight was a heated one in many states. One of the casualties was the friendship of Mason and Washington, as the latter bitterly referred to Mason as his “quondam friend.” When the Virginia ratification convention began in June 1788, the Anti-Federalist contingent was led by Mason and Patrick Henry. Among the supporters of the Constitution in the Virginia delegation were such luminaries as Madison, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, and John Marshall, as well as Washington and Jefferson, who did not attend but were known supporters. After much emotional debate, Virginia ratified the Constitution by an 89-79 vote, four days after New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify.

After this defeat, Mason retired to Gunston Hall for the final time. He turned down a seat in the U.S. Senate, preferring as usual to offer advice from home. James Madison introduced a bill of rights that was essentially based on Mason’s to the first session of Congress. Mason commented that “I have received much satisfaction from amendments to the federal Constitution that have lately passed . . . with two or three further amendments . . . I could cheerfully put my hand and heart to the new government.”

Mason continued to offer advice to any who would stop by for it. Thomas Jefferson complimented him by saying, “Whenever I pass your road I shall do myself the honor of turning into it.” Jefferson visited Mason in late September of 1792, and found the Sage of Gunston Hall reconciled with himself on every issue except the slavery compromise. A week later, Mason died peacefully—to the end a man who hated politics but loved liberty.

Further Reading

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