Oct. 7 is the 225th anniversary of the 1792 death of Alexandrian George Mason IV of Gunston Hall. He collaborated with, inspired and challenged George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Edmund Randolph, Patrick Henry and others with his brilliant intellect and practical actions. His example that others followed resulted in building momentum for American independence and improving our Constitution by the addition of our Bill of Rights.
Mason preferred private life to public service, but did not hesitate when duty called. One of his earliest important insights was realizing that the British, who had closed Boston’s harbor in retaliation for the Tea Party, might also close Alexandria’s, one of the most important on the East Coast. Mason immediately penned the Prince William Resolves, soon recast as the Fairfax Resolves, which were adopted in Arell’s Tavern on our Market Square on July 18, 1774. Deploring the English action, they urged local citizens to send foodstuffs overland to prevent the Bostonians from capitulating due to starvation. Mason sent a wagon of grain with his oxen and men to the beleaguered Northern patriots and challenged others to join him, giving as they were able. Washington and others did so. Mason’s initiative was the first instance of the tangible cooperation essential among the colonies for later winning independence.
On June 12, 1776, the Virginia Convention adopted Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, which declared it was the basis and foundation of government in Virginia. He wrote this document in Williamsburg in nine days and even before independence was declared. His close friend Jefferson used copies of the first and final drafts freely in our Declaration of Independence. Mason’s document was also an essential model for our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
Mason was the first delegate at the Constitutional Convention to urge including a Bill of Rights with the Constitution; indeed, he thought it should begin with a statement of rights. His proposal was voted down unanimously (Washington vigorously opposed it), but when the states ratified the Constitution, almost all required a Bill of Rights be added. Mason was one of three delegates present for the entire Constitutional Convention not to vote for its adoption. He had 16 objections, including its failing to end slavery and lack of a Bill of Rights. He, Edmund Randolph and Patrick Henry argued vigorously in the Virginia General Assembly against the adoption of the Constitution; if five men had voted the other way, it would have failed. Washington was furious at his old friend for his failure to support his higher priority: creation of a strong national government — with the Bill of Rights to come later if it were necessary, which he doubted.
History books laud Washington and the Federalists but unjustly ignore Mason, an antifederalist, although he deserves our profound thanks for the addition of the best known part of our Constitution which continues to safeguard individual rights which were first listed in his Virginia Declaration of Rights.
Ellen Latane Tabb