George Mason Idea Essays

George Mason served as a delegate to the Virginia Legislature from 1775 to 1781. He had contributed greatly to the formation of Virginia's government, both in his drafts of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Virginia's State Constitution, and also in his leadership on Virginia's Committee of Safety during the Revolutionary War. In 1781, however, George Mason withdrew from the Virginia legislature, claiming poor health, but he continued to participate in Virginia politics. In a letter to his son George, Jr., in 1783, he wrote, ". . . I have been for some time in Retirement, & shall not probably return again to public Life; yet my Anxiety for my Country, in these Times of Danger, makes me sometimes dabble a little in Politicks, & keep up a Correspondence with some Men upon the public Stage."[1]  Five months later, he wrote to his friend Arthur Campbell,

I retired from public Business from a thorough Conviction that it was not in my Power to do any Good, & very much disgusted with Measures, which appeared to me inconsistent with common Policy and Justice. I see from the Acts which have been passed since, the same System has been still pursued; Yet this has not extinguished my Love for my Country; and if I recover tollerable Health, and shou'd find just Cause to think I can do any important public Service, I will return again to the Assembly. [2]

Mason had become disturbed by some of the proceedings of the Virginia Assembly and wrote to several delegates warning them of the dire state of the government. He wanted legislative revisions and hoped to influence their actions. To his friend, and Virginia delegate, William Cabell in May 1783, he wrote:

Happiness & Prosperity are now within our Reach; but to attain & preserve them must depend upon our own Wisdom & Virtue. I hope the Assembly will revise several of our Laws, and abolish all such of them as are contrary to the fundamental Principles of Justice. This, & a strict adherence to the Distinctions between Right & Wrong for the future, is absolutely necessary, to restore that Confidence & Reverence in the People for the Legislature . . . Frequent Interferance with private Property & Contracts, retrospective Laws destructive of all public Faith, as well as Confidence between Man & Man, and flagrant Violations of the Constitution must disgust the best & wisest Part of the Community, occasion a general Depravity of Manners, bring the Legislature into Contempt, and finally produce Anarchy & public Convulsion. [3]

Mason's primary concerns about government, both Virginia's and the new nation's, were aimed at preserving the rights and liberties of individuals above all else. While he wanted a strong nation, he feared giving the government too much power, and for this reason, had become a strict constructionist of the Articles of Confederation. Mason was particularly alarmed by the Continental Congress's appeal for the states to levy more taxes to support the army and to retire the public debt. He felt the central government was overstepping its bounds in not adhering to the specific powers delegated by the Articles of Confederation. On May 30, 1783, Mason drafted a letter of instructions to the Virginia General Assembly delegates on behalf of the Fairfax County Freeholders. He wrote:

We desire and instruct you strenuously to oppose all encroachments of the American Congress upon the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the separate States; and every assumption of power, not expressly vested in them, by the Articles of Confederation. . . . And in particular we desire and instruct you to oppose any attempts which may be made by Congress to obtain a perpetual revenue, or the appointment of revenue officers. Were these powers superadded to those they already possess, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitutions of Government in the different States would prove mere parchment bulwarks to American Liberty [4]

Although Mason continued to "dabble" in politics out of concern for the nation, he still believed his service was not essential in 1784, when he refused to serve in the Virginia Assembly. He wrote to his neighbor and friend, Martin Cockburn, in April:

I have been lately inform'd that some People intend to open a Pole for me at the Election to-morrow for this County. I hope this will not be offered; for as I have repeatedly declared that I can not serve the County, at this time, as one of it's Representatives, I shou'd look upon such Attempt, in no other Light than as an oppressive & unjust Invasion of my personal Liberty; and was I to be elected under such Circumstances, I shoud most certainly refuse to act; let the Consequences be what they will . . . If ever I shou'd see a Time, when I have just Cause to think I can render the Public essential Service, and can arrange my own Domestic Concerns in such a Manner, as to enable me to leave my Family, for any Length of time, I will most chearfully let the County know it. [5]

He did agree, however, to serve on a Virginia-Maryland commission to settle questions concerning navigation of the Potomac River, and in January 1786, was appointed as a delegate to a national conference on trade and regulation of commerce that was set to meet in Annapolis in September 1786. He was excused from this meeting, however, for poor health, but in December 1786, was elected a delegate to a Federal Convention to meet in Philadelphia in May, 1787, for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. This time, he felt compelled to serve. By now, he believed the government under the Articles of Confederation was "approaching to Dissolution" and that "some of its Principals have been found utterly inadequate to the Purposes for which it was establish'd . . . ." Once again, Mason put on his politician's hat, and he set off for Philadelphia in the Spring of 1787, where the delegates would "obtain and preserve the important objects for which [the Articles of Confederation] was instituted--the protection Safety & Happiness of the People." [6]

Federal Convention of 1787

George Mason arrived in Philadelphia on Thursday, May 17, eager to revise the Articles of Confederation. On May 20, 1787, he wrote to his son George:

It is easy to foresee that there will be much Difficulty in organizing a Government upon this great Scale, & at the same time reserving to the State Legislatures a sufficient Portion of Power for promoting & securing the Prosperity & Happiness of their respective Citizens. Yet, with a proper Degree of Coolness, Liberality, & Candour (very rare Commodities by the Bye) I doubt not but that it may be effected. [7]

While Mason was optimistic about what the Convention might accomplish, he was an impatient politician who had little time for the social scene carried on by the other delegates in Philadelphia. On May 27, 1787, he wrote to George:

I begin to grow heartily tired of the etiquette and nonsense so fashionable in this city [Philadelphia]. It would take me some months to make myself master of them, and that it should require months to learn what is not worth remembering as many minutes, is to me so discouraging a circumstance as determines me to give myself no manner of trouble about them. [8]

Despite this, Mason was humbled by the great task set before him and the other delegates. He wrote that the fight for independence and the formation of a new government were nothing compared to "the great Business now before" the delegates. The creation of a new constitution would influence "the Happiness or Misery of Millions yet unborn" and the thought of this responsibility "suspend[ed] the Operations of human Understanding." [9]

Throughout the Convention's proceedings, Mason participated fully in the deliberations that gradually created the Constitution, making no fewer than 136 speeches on the convention floor. As the hot summer dragged on, he became increasingly alarmed over several aspects of the new government. While he agreed that the government was not functioning effectively under the Articles of Confederation, he wanted to prevent it from having too much power. He believed they could do this by placing most of the powers of government in the House of Representatives, which would be directly elected by the people.

Mr. Mason, argued strongly for an election of the larger branch by the people. It was to be the grand depository of the democratic principle of the Gov't. . .It ought to know & sympathise with every part of the community. . . [10]   May 31, 1787
Mr. Mason was of the opinion that the appointment of the Legislature coming from the people would make the representation actual, but if it came from the State Legislatures it will be only virtual. [11]   May 31, 1787

He thought money bills and taxes should originate only in the House of Representatives to prevent Senators, who were not elected directly by the people, from gaining too much power and influence.

. . .the 1st branch [representatives] would be the immediate representatives of the people, the 2d. [senators] would not. Should the latter have the power of giving away the people's money, they might soon forget the source from when they received it. We might soon have an aristocracy. [12]   July 6, 1787
. . .the Senate did not represent the people, but the States in their political character. It was improper therefore that it should tax the people. . .the Senate is not like the [House of Representatives] chosen frequently and obliged to return frequently among the people. They are to be chosen by the [States] for 6 years, will probably settle themselves at the seat of Gov't. will pursue schemes for their own aggrandizement-- will be able by [wearying] out the H. of Reps. and taking advantage of their impatience at the close of a long Session, to extort measures for that purpose. [13]   August 13, 1787

He wanted Congress, rather than the President, to appoint Federal Judges, since the judges had the power to impeach the president.

The mode of appointing the Judges may depend in some degree on the mode of trying impeachments of the Executive. If the Judges were to form a tribunal for that purpose, they surely ought not to be appointed by the Executive. [14]   July 18, 1787

He thought Congress should have the power to declare war and to regulate the national militia.

Mr. Mason was [against] giving the power of war to the Executive, because [it was] not safely to be trusted with it; or to the Senate, because [it was] not so constructed as to be entitled to it.[15]   August 17, 1787
Mr. Mason introduced the subject of regulating the militia. He thought such a power necessary to be given to the [General] Government.[16]   August 18, 1787

Mason was also very concerned about protecting the government from corruption and rule by a few select interests. He argued against a single executive, instead supporting power vested in three persons, one from each section of the country.

Mr. Mason was of opinion that it would be so dangerous for the Executive in a single Person to negative [veto] a Law that the People will not accept of it.[17]   June 4, 1787

The other delegates rejected this idea, so Mason acquiesced to power vested in a single executive. But he then motioned for an executive council chosen from various sections of the country, a motion that was also rejected.

"That it be an instruction to the Committee of the States to prepare a clause or clauses for establishing an Executive Council, as a Council of State, for the President of the U. States, to consist of six members, two of which [are to be chosen] from the Eastern, two from the middle, and two from the Southern States, with a Rotation and duration of office similar to those of the Senate; such Council to be appointed by the Legislature or by the Senate."[18]   September 7, 1787

To further ensure that the executive did not become too powerful, Mason also supported limiting the President's tenure to one term.

He considered an Executive during good behavior as a softer name only for an Executive for life. And that the next would be an easy step to hereditary Monarchy.[19]   July 17, 1787
He conceived at the same time that a second election ought to be absolutely prohibited. Having for his primary object, for the pole-star of his political conduct, the preservation of the rights of the people, he held it as an essential point, as the very palladium of Civil liberty, that the great officers of State, particularly the Executive should at fixed periods return to that mass from which they were at first taken, in order that they may feel & respect those rights & interests . . .[20]   July 26, 1787

Furthermore, he supported the impeachment power as a check on the President.

No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued. Shall any man be above Justice? Above all shall that man be above it, who can commit the most extensive injustice?[21]   July 20, 1787

Mason also thought members of Congress should be excluded from holding federal offices.

Col: Mason. Instead of excluding merit, the ineligibility will keep out corruption, by excluding office-hunters.[22]   September 3, 1787

As the delegates continued to compromise, Mason began to fear that sectional interests would control congress. Therefore, one of his primary concerns centered around navigation and trade laws. In the interests of Virginia, first, and of the South in general, he argued that bills regulating navigation and trade should be passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses, rather than the simple majority favored by northern states. He believed southern interests would be in jeopardy if only a simple majority in Congress regulated trade.

The Majority will be governed by their interests. The Southern States are the minority in both Houses. Is it to be expected that they will deliver themselves bound hand & foot to the Eastern States, and enable them to exclaim, in the words of Cromwell on a certain occasion--"the lord hath delivered them into our hands."[23]   August 29, 1787
Col: Mason expressing his discontent at the power given to Congress by a bare majority to pass navigation acts, which he said would not only enhance the freight, a consequence he did not so much regard--but would enable a few rich merchants in Philada N. York & Boston, to monopolize the Staples of the Southern States & reduce their value perhaps [fifty percent]--moved a further provision "that no law in nature of a navigation act be passed before the year 1808, without the consent of 2/3 of each branch of the Legislature" [24]   September 15, 1787

The other delegates, however, rejected this motion by a vote of seven to three, with one state abstaining.

On the issue of ratifying the proposed Constitution, Mason believed the people, rather than state legislatures, should do the job.

Col. Mason considered a reference of the plan to the authority of the people as one of the most important and essential of the Resolutions. The Legislatures have no power to ratify it. They are the mere creatures of the State Constitutions, and can not be greater than their creators.[25]   July 23, 1787

Mason also believed a bill of rights should preface the Constitution:

. . . He wished the plan had been prefaced with a Bill of Rights, & would second a Motion if made for the purpose. It would give great quiet to the people; and with the aid of the State declarations, a bill might be prepared in a few hours. September 12, 1787

He seconded Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry's motion for a committee to prepare a bill of rights, yet some argued that individual state declarations were sufficient to protect the rights of individuals. Mason countered that "The Laws of the U.S. are to be paramount to State Bills of Rights."[26]   The motion was voted down, however, ten to zero, with Massachusetts abstaining.

While some of Mason's concerns were favorably addressed, there were many others that caused him enough distress to declare, on August 31, 1787, "that he would sooner chop off his right hand" than see the Constitution, as it then stood, passed.[27]   Around September 16, Mason formally wrote sixteen objections to the Constitution and passed it around to several colleagues. Among other concerns, he opposed the lack of a bill of rights, supported direct representation in the House, wanted an executive council to advise the President, opposed the Vice President's relationship with the Senate, opposed the President's power to grant pardons, wanted two-thirds of both houses, rather than a simple majority, to pass navigation and commercial laws, opposed a standing army in time of peace, opposed the restrictions placed on state governments, opposed the continued importation of slaves for at least twenty years, and opposed what he considered the many excessive powers of the Congress (especially the Senate), Judiciary, and the Executive. He believed the Constitution would "produce a monarchy, or a corrupt, tyrannical aristocracy," or most likely "vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate in the one or the other."[28]

At this point, Mason hoped that state conventions would deliberate over the Constitution and make suggestions for improvement, and that the Federal Convention would meet a second time to revise the offending articles. On September 15, 1787, Randolph motioned for a second convention and Mason seconded it.

Col: Mason 2ded. & followed Mr. Randolph in animadversions on the dangerous power and structure of the Government, concluding that it would end either in monarchy, or a tyrannical aristocracy; which, he was in doubt, but one or other, he was sure. This Constitution had been formed without the knowledge or idea of the people. A second Convention will know more of the sense of the people, and be able to provide a system more consonant to it.[29]

However, every state delegation opposed Randolph's motion, and instead, voted to submit the Constitution, as it then stood, to state legislatures for either ratification or rejection. The Constitution was signed by every delegate but three: Eldridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, and George Mason. Mason could not bring himself to sign a document that he believed granted the government too much power, and did too little in preserving individual rights.

Mason left Philadelphia angry at how the events of the Federal Convention's final weeks were carried out, particularly at how the Federalists got the majority they needed to approve the Constitution. The Eastern states made a compromise with two Southern states that allowed the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, to the advantage of the Southern states, and required only a simple majority to pass navigation and commerce laws, to the advantage of the Eastern states. As noted before, Mason saw this as dangerous for Southern interests, and was very bitter over its enactment.

On May 26, 1788, Mason wrote to Thomas Jefferson and enclosed a copy of his objections. He wrote:

Upon the most mature Consideration I was capable of, and from Motives of sincere Patriotism, I was under the Necessity of refusing my Signature, as one of the Virginia Delegates; and drew up some general Objections; which I intended to offer, by Way of Protest; but was discouraged from doing so, by the precipitate, & intemperate, 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 Favour, which was obtained 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 favourite Object with them than the Liberty and Happiness of the People. [30]

By November 1787, Mason had decided to fight against unconditional ratification of the Constitution. He still hoped to amend the offending parts and expected the Virginia ratifying convention to insist on another Federal Convention before ratification became final. Between the end of the Federal Convention and the beginning of the Virginia ratifying convention, Mason was vilified in the press and by rumors that circulated throughout Virginia. He was labeled an anti-federalist, and was accused of letting his ego get in the way of his sensibilities. Despite these setbacks, Mason campaigned in the less Federalist Stafford County and won a seat to the ratifying convention, scheduled to begin on June 2, 1788.

The Virginia ratifying convention deliberated for three weeks, during which Mason argued for and against various points in the Constitution. He submitted resolutions that, among other things, would have: provided for a bill of rights; asserted state sovereignty over issues not expressly covered by the Constitution; created a Council to assist in the administration of Government; required a two-thirds vote for passage of any navigation or commerce laws; and required consent of two-thirds of both houses to command the Army or Navy. Ultimately, however, the Federalists won, and the Constitution, without any alteration, was ratified, once again, without George Mason's support.

Nonetheless, we should not overlook George Mason's tremendous contribution to the formation of the Constitution. His absolute commitment to the protection and preservation of the rights of individuals motivated his objections to the Constitution, and even in the twilight of his life, he continued to believe he had acted in the best interests of the country. Though disturbed at how his opposition had affected his relationships with men such as George Washington and James Madison, he wrote to his son, John, in the spring of 1789,

In this important trust, I am truly conscious of having acted from the purest motives of honesty, and love to my country, according to that measure of judgement which God has bestowed on me, and I would not forfeit the approbation of my own mind for the approbation of any man, or all the men upon earth. [31]



Click footnote number to return to text.

1. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2:761.

2. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2:775-6.

3. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2:775-6.

4. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2:781.

5. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2:799-800.

6. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:903-4.

7. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970) 3:880.

8. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:884.

9. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:892-3.

10.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 39.

11. Max Farrand, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 1:57.

12.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 120.

13.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 443.

14.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 315.

15.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 476.

16.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 478.

17. Max Farrand, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 1:109-10.

18.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 601.

19.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 312.

20.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 371.

21.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 331.

22.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 572.

23.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 549-50.

24.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 650.

25.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 348.

26.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 630.

27.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 566.

28. Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:991-3.

29.Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 651.

30. Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:1045. [full letter]

31. Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:1142.

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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:

That the colonists were entitled to all of the "rights, immunities and privileges which are enjoyed by those who live within the realm of England." The colonists are not a conquered people.

That people cannot be governed by laws for which they have not given their consent.

That Americans are not represented in the British Parliament; therefore they can be subject only to those laws enacted by their own provincial assemblies or Parliaments.

That taxation and representation go hand-in-hand; therefore, without representation the colonists cannot be taxed by the British Parliament.

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.12
Among the important principles set forth in the Declaration are these:
  • That all power is derived from the people and that government officials are their trustees and servants.
  • That no government official is entitled to a hereditary office.
  • That the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government should be separate from one another.
  • That freedom of the press is a "bulwark of liberty."
  • That free exercise of religion is a right to which all are entitled.
  • That standing armies in time of peace should be avoided as dangerous to liberty. At all times the military should be under civilian control.
The Virginia Declaration also proclaimed that the purpose of government is to promote "the common benefit...of the people, nation, or community." The Declaration also underscored the right of the people to change or even to abolish their government:
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 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.32
Why 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.

Mason's Legacy

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 Author

Margaret 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.

9 Ibid.

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.

20 Ibid.

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.

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