Dec. 15, Bill of Rights Day, celebrates its 1791 addition to our Constitution, mainly due to the persistence and wisdom of Alexandrian George Mason. On June 12, 1776 our General Assembly had adopted his Declaration of Rights, which served as the introduction to our state’s first Constitution. Mason, unlike his frequent collaborator George Washington, believing that it was essential for the people’s rights to be protected against the heavy hand of government at every level, was among the leading opponents of the adoption of the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. Furious, Washington ended their long friendship. His loyal Federalists who wrote the history books generally omitted Mason’s name and contributions, so he is little known today.
Mason’s documents were among the first to list specific rights of the people and were more comprehensive than their predecessors, the English Magna Carta of 1215 and 1689 Bill of Rights.
His work provokes the questions: what is a right and how do we know it is a right? The Declaration of Independence (borrowing from Mason’s Declaration) had already noted that “… all men are created equal, … endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …” This inspiring statement needed a specific listing of rights so people would know exactly what they were and be able to protect them. Having seen how the English king, Parliament and the courts had violated the people’s rights, the Founders resolved our new government must be restrained from doing so.
Today some politicians are claiming other “rights” such as health insurance, health care, tuition at government (taxpayers) expense, etc. These assertions are of entirely different from those in our founding documents. Such new “benefits” would come from government, not the Creator, and require someone else to pay for them. Logically, if someone else can compel me to pay for his benefits, I have an equal right to do the same and to the same extent, so our “benefits” cancel each other. Alarmingly, instead of remaining a republic with self-reliant citizens, our country would become a socialist one whose politics are based on greed and envy of others. The incentive to work hard will be lost because one cannot enjoy the results of his industry/creativity. Like the joke in the Soviet Union, the workers pretend to work and the government pretends to pay them. That system failed and is still failing wherever it has been tried. Our system is based on equality of opportunity; it cannot promise equal results.
The “Equal Rights” Amendment has resurfaced. No proponent, including our elected officials, has been able to tell me what ill it alone can correct. Women – and men - have made amazing accomplishments without it. Passage will complicate matters such as access to what are now women’s rest and locker rooms and athletic competitions. Passage of the ERA will ensure this Constitutional disadvantage for girls and women.
Let’s celebrate Mason’s beneficial contributions, comprising probably the best known section of our Constitution, and echoed in the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the 1948 UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They have stood the test of time admirably, and he deserves our thanks and praise.
Ellen Latane Tabb