December 11 marks a milestone most Americans are woefully ignorant of. It is the birthday of George Mason, “the father of the Bill of Rights.”
Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which Clinton Rossiter called “among the world’s most memorable triumphs in applied political theory,” which The Declaration of Independence echoed a few weeks later. Charles Maynes wrote that,
Mason’s revolutionary step was…reversing, in writing and in a supreme governmental document, the traditional relationship between citizen and state. Throughout history it had been the citizen who owed duties to the state, which in turn might bestow certain rights on the citizen…Mason argued that the state had to observe certain citizens’ rights that could not be violated under any circumstances. Mason thus set the United States apart from past constitutional practices.
George Mason also wrote several other works defending Americans’ rights and liberties. He was among the most frequent speakers at the Constitutional Convention. He considered a bill of rights so important that he refused to sign the Constitution and led the opposition to its ratification without one. According to Jeff Broadwater, “only Washington ranked higher in public esteem.” Therefore we should remember his seminal contributions.
All power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people… magistrates are their trustees and servants.
No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by… frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.
All men are by nature born equally free and independent… men entered into compacts to give up some of their natural rights, that by union and mutual assistance they might secure the rest; but they gave up no more… all government, and every kind of civil compact therefore, is or ought to be, calculated for the general good and safety of the community. Every power, every authority vested…is, or ought to be, ultimately directed to this sole end; and whenever any power or authority whatever extends further…it may be called government, but it is in fact oppression.
Free-born man has been enslaved…those very means which were contrived for his preservation have been perverted to his ruin.
Defense of their liberty and property…dictate[s] resistance to injustice and oppression, in whatever shape, or under whatever pretense, it may be offered.
Every petty-officer of government… assumes a dispensing-power over the laws…[so] a man can have no security in his property.
Supplying the public-wants by seizures, is… unequal, oppressive and unjust; being in fact, only another name for public-robbery.
[Laws] have taken away all security for private-property, and ruined many...by encouraging knavery and legalizing fraud, [they] have corrupted and depraved the morals of the people.
We cannot be deprived of [our rights] but by violence and injustice.
We will not submit to have our own money taken out of our pockets without our consent… We owe to our mother country the duty of subjects but will not pay her the submission of slaves.
If I can only… leave to my children but a crust of bread and liberty, I shall die satisfied.
Happiness and prosperity are now within our reach; but to attain and preserve them must depend upon our own wisdom and virtue… Frequent interference with private property and contracts, retrospective laws destructive of all public faith, as well as confidence between man and man, and flagrant violations of the Constitution must disgust the best and wisest part of the community, occasion a general depravity of manners, bring the legislature into contempt, and finally produce… public convulsion.
Because of his seminal recognition that rights do not originate from government, George Mason deserves more attention. In Robert Rutland’s words, he wrote “on behalf of… the birthrights of every free American… man’s native freedom from restraint unless he threatened or did harm to others.” As a consequence, “His ideas became permeating facts” at America’s founding. They need to again permeate Americans’ thoughts if we are to revive the liberty he helped create.