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The Reader's Companion to American History


(1725-1792), Virginia planter and political leader during the revolutionary era. Born and reared in the genteel plantation society that produced a generation of extraordinary leaders, Mason was unique in preferring public duties that did not bring the fame and glory sought by many of his contemporaries. From Gunston Hall in Fairfax County, Virginia, Mason watched the crisis between the North American colonies and Britain become critical, and he helped his neighbor, George Washington, prepare the influential Fairfax Resolves of July 1774. The resolves, carried by Washington to the Virginia House of Burgesses, clearly asserted colonial rights, called for an economic boycott of English goods, and denounced the slave trade, demanding an end "to such a wicked cruel and unnatural Trade." The resolves helped cement a close alliance among Mason, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Washington, and other leading Virginians, as the tensions between the colonies and England escalated.

After April 1775 Mason was drawn into the vortex of the resistance movement in Virginia. He refused to take a place on the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress but was active on the county Committee of Safety (procuring weapons for the militia) and replaced Washington on the county delegation elected to the Virginia Convention. Widowed in 1773, Mason carried on extensive tobacco cultivation at Gunston Hall while attending to his nine children's upbringing. He was saddened when the break with England made his participation on revolutionary councils urgent.

In May 1776 the Virginia Convention took the first step in severing the colony from the British Empire, and Mason's plans for a declaration of rights and a constitution "swallowed up all the rest." Printed in a Williamsburg newspaper and widely circulated, Mason's stirring rhetoric and systematic catalog of human rights, prefaced by an affirmation of every freeman's right to "life and liberty ... and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety," had an electrifying effect on other state assemblies. Thereafter, as most states cut the bonds with England they adopted similar declarations, often borrowing Mason's articles verbatim.

Mason continued to avoid public service outside Virginia, but he was active in the state legislature, and his intellectual grasp of political problems won the admiration of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Mason threw his support behind Jefferson's bill establishing religious freedom, which became law in 1786.

When the crisis in national affairs came to a head in 1786, Mason set aside his reservations and agreed to serve on the Virginia delegation at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787. He was one of the most active speakers and consistently advocated liberal provisions for national elections, safeguards for majority rule, and limitations on presidential power. Mason urged schemes to give states power in the Senate and to control their exports, but was disappointed when his suggestion for a bill of rights was voted down.

Somewhat embittered by this rejection, Mason was one of three delegates at Philadelphia who refused to sign the finished Constitution on September 17, 1787. He wrote a critique of it that appeared in pamphlet form as his "Objections." His first sentence—"There is no Declaration of Rights"—became a rallying point for the Antifederalist opposition to the ratification of the Constitution. In June 1788 Mason served at the Virginia ratifying convention but was bested in the debate by Madison. He would not back down, however, calling even in defeat for a bill of rights in the Constitution—a concession finally made after a close vote (89 to 79).

With the new government in operation, Mason found that his opposition had somewhat alienated his old friend Washington. But he maintained his relationships with Jefferson and Madison, and the latter introduced the set of ten amendments that became part of the Constitution in December 1791. Mason then let his wartime associates know he was ready to "chearfully put my Hand & Heart to the new Government." He refused a proffered seat in the Senate, however, falling back on his old excuses of ill health (he suffered from gout) and family matters. Jefferson visited him on September 30, 1792, and they talked of political matters past and future in friendly fashion. A week later, Mason was dead.

Helen Hill Miller, George Mason: Gentleman Revolutionary (1975); Robert A. Rutland, George Mason: Reluctant Statesman (1980).

See also Bill of Rights; Constitution; Philadelphia Convention; Ratification of the Constitution; Revolution.

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