By James A. Baer
July 22, 2015
George Mason was the central genius of the American Revolution. He was highly regarded by his contemporaries for his intellect and devotion to the cause of liberty. Thomas Jefferson described him as “A man of the first order of wisdom…of expansive mind, profound judgment, cogent in argument, learned in lore…indifferent to the temptations of political ambition, and withal a man of purest character.” James Madison called him “The soundest and clearest reasoned I ever listened to…learned and elegant without the vanity of seeming so.”
Mason was the primary author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted June 12, 1776, and Virginia’s first Constitution, adopted June 29, 1776. The idea of committing government to one or two basic documents was new to the world, and Virginia’s example was followed by other states at Independence. He was also chairman of the committee that created the Seal of Virginia, adopted on July 5, 1776.
Mason has been referred to as the “forgotten” or “reluctant” founder. Most content at Gunston Hall, his home in Fairfax County, indicates that he participated in politics only out of a sense of duty. Unconcerned with his own fame, he preferred the happiness of “a private station” to “the vexations of public business.” This reticence was his critical strength, as he was well known to be without political aspirations and only looking out for the public good.
Mason was also a fifth generation Virginian. Another of his contemporaries, Edmund Randolph, captures his character in writing:
How he learned his indifference for distinction, endowed as he was with ability…or whence he contracted his hatred for pomp, with a fortune competent to any expense…can be solved only from that philosophical spirit which despised the adulterated means of cultivating happiness. He was behind none of the sons of Virginia in knowledge of her history or interest. At a glance he saw to the bottom of every proposition which affected her.
It was his greatest contribution to us – he referred to us as his “posterity” – that guaranteed his obscurity. When a Convention for reforming the Articles of Confederation was proposed, an offer for Mason to attend was made in anticipation that he would refuse. Outside of an occasional foray into Maryland, in his 62nd year he had never travelled outside of Virginia. But by 1787 he grew so concerned that Americans were about to trade the tyranny of George III for the tyranny of Philadelphia that he was prompted to make the trip.
While James Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution,” he attributed much of the final document to Mason’s suggestions during the Convention. Mason refused, however, to sign the Constitution as it did not guarantee the rights of the people. His objections, published as the Convention ended, began simply “There is no Declaration of Rights.” This refusal to sign the Constitution particularly chafed George Washington and brought their long friendship to an end.
The states then had to ratify the Constitution, and Virginians met for that purpose in Richmond during June of 1788. Mason and Patrick Henry lead the opposition, with Madison and Edmund Randolph as primary advocates. Madison was able to deflect most of the objections but saw that the absence of a Declaration of Rights would cause the Constitution to fail. Mason’s appeal for “such amendments as are necessary to secure the dearest rights of the people” almost defeated the Constitution.
Madison was forced to pledge that if his fellow Virginians ratified the Constitution, he would introduce a Bill of Rights in the first Congress based on Mason’s Declaration. With that promise the Constitution was secured narrowly by a vote of 89-79.
Mason returned home to relative obscurity at the same time that George Washington’s reputation – the “Father of his Country” – was at its highest. In the battle over the Constitution, Washington won and Mason lost. Mason did live long enough to see the Bill of Rights adopted and died the following year, in 1792, his passing virtually unnoticed by contemporaries. It is this “forgotten” founder’s principled opposition to a Constitution, without the guarantee of our liberties, that ultimately assured the dearest rights of the people.