To the Editor:
The Bill of Rights, one of the most important bulwarks of our freedoms, was the product of the wisdom and determination of George Mason IV of Gunston Hall, a proud native Alexandrian. This forceful statement was adopted on Dec. 15, 1791, when the Virginia legislature provided the decisive vote. Although it is the best-known section of the Constitution, many founding fathers, including George Washington, opposed its inclusion. George Mason deserves our honor and thanks for his many important contributions to our local welfare as well as that of our state, nation and the world.
When the British closed the port at Boston, he immediately realized that the American colonies must unite to resist the British tyranny. He initiated assistance by word and deed by writing the Fairfax Resolves, adopted in Alexandria, the county seat, on July 18, 1774. He also set an example for others by sending food stuffs overland to the Bostonians at his own expense and inviting others to join him in doing so. George Washington and other Virginians did, thus providing the first example of intercolonial cooperation against the British and preventing the Bostonians from being starved into submission.
Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted by our General Assembly on June 12, 1776. It included the lines: “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights … among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.” Jefferson’s most famous lines in our Declaration of Independence are a close paraphrase. It also served as the basis for our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen adopted in 1789, and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
Mason wrote the first constitution for the State of Virginia, which served us for almost 200 years. It was an important model for the U.S. Constitution, the oldest written constitution still in active use in the world, distinguished for its separation and balance of powers, a doctrine Mason adopted after careful study of contemporary thinking and the best features of all governments until his time. Mason was the genius who set the framework for our Constitution, and his tenacity in insisting that a Bill of Rights be included ensured that a citizen’s rights are protected at all levels of government.
Mason recognized the moral and practical obligation of the nation to ensure freedom for all people and end slavery at the earliest opportunity. He advocated education and gradual emancipation for the slaves. Because the proposed Constitution put off starting to free the slaves for 20 years and lacked a Bill of Rights, although he favored a stronger central government, he voted against its adoption, incurring the life-long enmity of his best friend and closest neighbor, George Washington.
Although Mason did not have a college education, he recognized the importance of continuing education by reading and thinking deeply throughout his life, for the benefit of his family, city, state and nation. It is very appropriate that we have an elementary school in Alexandria and a university and regional library in Fairfax which are named for him. The south-bound span of the 14th St. Bridge is also named for him.
In his personal affairs he set an example of practicality, order and honor. He was a faithful and active Christian, a loving husband to his childhood sweetheart and father to his nine surviving children, and a warm friend and host. His home, Gunston Hall, located off Route 1 at Lorton, is open to the public; there is also a museum on the property.
Let’s celebrate Bill of Rights Day on Dec. 15 and his birthday on Dec. 11 (1725). Alexandria should declare and celebrate George Mason Week to honor this exemplary citizen.
Ellen Latane Tabb