George Mason: honoring a forgotten Founder

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bill of Rights Day — Dec. 15 — gives us an opportunity to reflect upon the freedoms that the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution guarantee us as citizens of this great nation. Unfortunately, few people even know that this day of observance exists. Even fewer know about the man who was largely responsible for the Bill of Rights as we know it today.

In May 1776, Virginia planter and statesman George Mason drafted America’s first bill of rights — the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Adopted on June 15 of that year, Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights established the principle “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.”

You are likely not alone in your thinking if these words have a ring of familiarity. Thomas Jefferson found inspiration in Mason’s writings while drafting his own Declaration of Independence in 1776, and Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights also inspired James Madison’s draft of the U.S. Bill of Rights, ratified on Dec. 15, 1791.

George Mason’s hand of influence on the Bill of Rights is well-documented. In 1783, when the Articles of Confederation were being debated, and an entirely new Constitution was being considered, James Madison sought Mason’s advice. In reply to a letter from Jefferson, Madison wrote, “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.” As a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Edmund Randolph said that of all the plans being discussed for a new form of government, “those proposed by George Mason swallowed up all the rest.”

Yet, despite his significant contributions, and recognition by his peers, George Mason’s legacy has seemingly lapsed into obscurity. Mason’s refusal to sign the Constitution was surely one cause of posterity’s oversight. Although he contributed significantly to the creation of the Constitution, Mason was adamantly opposed to its ratification because it lacked a basic “declaration of rights.” As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Mason actively campaigned against ratification, stating, “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 declarations of rights in the separate states are no security.” Mason even stated that he would sooner have chopped off his right hand before signing a Constitution that had no protection for the rights of citizens, and he resigned from the Fairfax County Court in August 1789 rather than comply with a law requiring public officials to take an oath to support the Constitution.

Mason’s strong stand for a Bill of Rights estranged him from many of his political allies. The Federalist press published a series of essays dismissing Mason’s objections to ratification, and some partisans even questioned his patriotism, floating rumors that Mason and fellow Virginian Patrick Henry supported the creation of a Southern confederacy. Some close friends even questioned his sanity. Madison observed that Mason was “growing every day more bitter, and outrageous,” and he feared that “the violence of his passions” would paint Mason into an even more radical corner. Mason’s close friendship with George Washington even suffered. In March 1789, Mason wrote to his son John, “You know the friendship which has long existed between General Washington and myself. I believe there are few men in whom he placed greater confidence; but it is possible my opposition to the new government, both as a member of the national and of the Virginia Convention, may have altered the case.”

Ultimately, however, George Mason’s views prevailed. Two years after the ratification of the Constitution, members of the First Congress debated and ultimately drafted the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights. When the Bill of Rights was ratified by three-fourths of the states on this date in 1791, it secured the freedoms for which George Mason had advocated so passionately.

In an April 3, 1825, letter, Jefferson wrote, “The fact is unquestionable, that the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution of Virginia, were drawn originally by George Mason, one of our greatest men, and of the first order of greatness.”

When Bill of Rights Day is celebrated this and every year on Dec. 15, it is only fitting that we also remember the “Forgotten Founder,” George Mason.

Suggested reading:

Jeff Broadwater. George Mason: Forgotten Founder. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Helen Hill Miller. George Mason: Gentleman Revolutionary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Donald J. Senese, ed. George Mason and the Legacy of Constitutional Liberty: An Examination of the Influence of George Mason on the American Bill of Rights. Fairfax County, Va.: Fairfax County Historical Commission, 1989.

T. Daniel Shumate, ed. The First Amendment: The Legacy of George Mason. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1985.

Robert Allen Rutland. George Mason: Reluctant Statesman. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1961.