Alexandrian George Mason is among the most important of our Founding Fathers, but few people – even in our city and at his home, Gunston Hall, celebrate his Dec. 11, 1752, birthday because they do not know and therefore honor his contributions to our federal republic – nor do most celebrate Bill of Rights Day, Dec. 15 (1791), although it is by far the best known section of the Constitution. Mason’s insistence on its inclusion cost him Washington’s friendship and his rightful place in our history books written by the general’s Federalist partisans. Mason also provided Jefferson with the most famous claims in our Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson used the thesis of his mentor Mason, whom he deemed the most intelligent man of his day, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He had copies of Mason’s first and final drafts of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted by the General Assembly on June 12, 1776, and admirably edited its language to some of the most stirring words ever written. Mason’s 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” became in Jefferson’s words “…. all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Inspired by the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), Mason had the then radical insight: a republic needed a legally binding commitment that individuals have inalienable rights superior to any government. Also, it is necessary for those rights to be written so they would be clear to both government officials and the people. Therefore, he created the first written statement of those individual rights which he believed must be included to restrain all levels of government.
Mason also wrote Virginia’s (and the colonies’) first Constitution, which included a Bill of Rights, and was used until the 1970s. That constitution was a model for our national Constitution.
Mason was the first delegate at the Constitutional Convention to urge including a Bill of Rights with our 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 to vote against its adoption. His 16 objections listed its failure to end slavery and include a Bill of Rights. In the Virginia General Assembly’s ratification debate, Mason, Edmund Randolph and Patrick Henry argued vigorously against adopting the Constitution; if five men had voted the other way, it would have failed. Washington was furious at Mason’s 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.
Fortunately for us, Mason’s argument prevailed.
Ellen Latane Tabb