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Mason, George (1725-1792)

George Mason (1725-1792)

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Virginia revolutionary

Reluctant Statesman. George Mason was a private man devoted to his family and plantation, yet he was periodically called on by his community for advice and counsel. A slaveholder, Mason spent his public life attacking the institution of slavery, which violated his ideals of liberty and republican virtue. A leader in Virginias break with England, Mason drafted the states Declaration of Rights and called for a firm union of the states. In the 1780s Mason joined Washington and Madison in calling for a stronger union, and he helped draft the U.S. Constitution. Mason was horrified that the Constitution did not include a Bill of Rights and that it would allow the slave trade to continue for another twenty years. He opposed its ratification in 1788. The changes he proposed became the model for the Bill of Rights.

Family Life. When Mason was ten, his father, George Mason III, drowned in the Potomac. His mother, Ann Thomson Mason, managed the estate, instilling in her three children traits that became part of their character: an attention to detail, hard work, and the necessity to avoid extravagance and debt. Under Virginia law George, as oldest son, would inherit all of his fathers estate, so his mother shrewdly added to her own holdings to give his younger sister and brother an inheritance. Georges uncle, lawyer John Mercer, acted as a guardian to the Mason children, and in Mercers extensive library George Mason studied law and political philosophy. Though he never went to college, he became one of the best-educated men in the American colonies. In 1750 he married Anne Eilbeck, with whom he would have nine children who survived to adulthood. In 1758 the Masons commissioned English architect William Buckland to design their home, Gunston Hall, which became a showplace. A dozen miles away young George Washington had inherited his half-brothers estate at Mount Vernon, and for the next forty years Mason and Washington would be close business partners and political allies. Mason managed his estate and attended to his family, reluctantly doing his civic duty as a parish vestryman and member of the colonial assembly. In 1772 Ann gave birth to twins who lived only a few hours; she never recovered from the difficult pregnancy, and she died in March 1773. In the crisis between England and the colonies Mason would play an important role, but his first duty was to his family.

The Fairfax Resolves. On 18 July 1774 the voters of Fairfax County elected George Washington and Maj. Charles Broadwater to the House of Burgesses, and Mason drew up the countys instructions to their representatives. These instructions, the Fairfax Resolves, declared that Virginians enjoyed all the rights of Englishmen and that the most important and valuable Part of the British Constitution is the fundamental Principle that the people can not be made to obey laws to which they have not given their Consent, by Representatives freely chosen by themselves. The power to make laws governing the colonies could be exercised only by their own provincial assemblies. The Resolves called on all colonies to support Boston and urged every county in Virginia to send provisions to the town. While our greatest Wish and Inclination was to remain connected to the British government, the Virginians would use every Means which Heaven hath given us to prevent our becoming its Slaves. The Resolves asked the king not to reduce his subjects to desperation as from our Sovereign there can be but one Appeal. Masons Resolves called for a general boycott of British goods and for the colonists not to export any of their produce for sale in England until the crisis had been resolved. Mason chose not to be a candidate for the House of Burgesses or the Provincial Convention that replaced it. However, he remained active on his communitys Committee of Safety, and, in Washingtons absence, he chaired the Fairfax County Committee. In July 1775 Mason was elected to the Virginia Convention, and when Governor Dunmore fled the colony at the end of the year, Mason served on the committee of safety, which acted as the new executive power.

Declaration of Rights. James Madison called Mason the master builder of Virginias 1776 constitution, and as its author Mason had a profound influence on all subsequent written constitutions. Mason began the new state constitution with a Declaration of Rights. The declaration declared That all Men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot by any Compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursueing and obtaining Happiness and Safety. The Declaration of Rights went on to guarantee protection of property, trial by jury, the right of the accused to face his accusers, religious toleration, freedom of the press, and separation of powers in government. This declaration was a model for Thomas Jeffersons Declaration of Independence, for other state constitutions, for Frances 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, and for the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Slavery and Liberty. The Virginia convention made one crucial change in Masons declaration. Mason, and most of Virginias political leaders, owned slaves. How could they declare that all men were born free and that they could not divest their posterity of liberty? What about slaves? Were they to be free? Robert Carter Nicholas warned that Masons declaration would create civil convulsion, and the convention amended the draft to say that men were by nature free, and that once they entered into a state of society they could not divest their posterity of liberty. This permitted the white men in the state to continue holding slaves. The tortured reasoning here had a profound result. The 1780 Massachusetts constitution began with a statement exactly like Masons original draft. A Boston slave named Quok Walker sued for his freedom, arguing that this constitution prohibited slavery, and the Massachusetts courts agreed. Had Virginias convention not amended Masons draft, his constitution also might have ended slavery, a result he would have applauded. Mason regarded slavery as an evil that weakened society; he urged Virginia to stop importing slaves and blamed England for extending the slave trade. Mason called for gradual emancipation and for educating the freed people so they could become independent members of society.

Devoted Republican. Having launched an era of constitution writing, Mason retired to his family and plantation. In 1780 Mason married Sarah Brent, a fifty-year old spinster. In 1785 he participated in the Mount Vernon conference, and though he was chosen as a delegate to the Annapolis conference the next year, he did not go. He was elected to the legislature in 1785, over his objections, and in 1787 he represented Virginia in the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia. Mason was an active delegate, and years later Madison recalled Mason at Philadelphia as a powerful Reasoner, a profound Statesman and a devoted Republican. At the end, though, Mason refused to sign the constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights and permitted the slave trade to continue until 1808. He left Philadelphia, Madison said, in a very ill humor, returning home to oppose ratification. Mason failed to prevent his state from ratifying, but his opposition pushed Madison and the Federalists to propose a Bill of Rights.

Retirement. Mason had a profound influence on the public affairs of his day, and Virginias Declaration of Rights that he drafted continues to be the basis for written constitutional guarantees of liberty. Though Mason left home reluctantly, his letters to Washington, Jefferson, and other men gave him great influence until his death on 7 October 1792.

Source

Helen Hill Miller, George Mason: Gentleman Revolutionary (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975).

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George Mason

George Mason

The American statesman George Mason (1725-1792) wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights and persistently advocated safeguarding the rights of individuals during the formative years of the republic.

George Mason was born in Virginia, son of a wealthy planter. He inherited several large estates along the Potomac River and became a friend and neighbor of George Washington. He married Ann Eilbeck in 1750 and soon was performing the tasks incumbent on a gentleman planter—justice of the peace, vestryman, and county delegate in the House of Burgesses. He speculated in land and became expert in colonial land law. In 1773 he became a widower with nine children. Despondent for months, he turned his attention to the growing Revolutionary crisis. A year later his Fairfax Resolves set the tone for Virginia's resistance to British domination.

Mason preferred to advise statesmen rather than be one. He served in the 1775 Virginia convention and so impressed fellow delegates that he was selected to the Continental Congress delegation. He declined to serve, as he steadfastly avoided higher offices in his reluctant role as a Revolutionary statesman.

At the 1776 Virginia convention Mason's drafts of the Declaration of Rights and the constitution emerged as models for other colonies turned states. Though ill, Mason was hardworking and helped write key legislation in the state assembly. Between 1776 and 1780 his bills for western land sales were designed to erase the public debt. In 1780 he outlined a plan which evolved into the western land cession act that eventually created the Northwest Territory.

Mason remarried and after the Revolution turned to his family and his fields. At the urging of friends he served at the Mount Vernon Convention of 1785 but avoided the Annapolis Convention. He went to the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787, convinced that the Revolution and "the Formations of our new Governments at that time, were nothing compared to the great Business now before us". Though some of his suggestions in the Federal Constitutional Convention seemed to favor southern interests, his attack on slave importation showed that he could place humanitarianism beyond local concerns.

Many details in the approved Constitution, such as the mandatory origin of tax bills in the House, bore testimony to Mason's persistence. He refused to sign the Constitution, however, and worked indefatigably for its revision prior to a final ratification. He and Patrick Henry almost brought the ratification process to a standstill in Virginia, but after the Federal Bill of Rights was adopted, Mason conceded that with a few more alterations "I could chearfully put my hand & heart to the new government." He died at his plantation home, Gunston Hall, on Oct. 7, 1792.

Further Reading

The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1796 was edited by Robert A. Rutland (3 vols., 1970). There is no thorough study of Mason's life. The standard work is Kate Mason Rowland, The Life of George Mason (1892). Interpretive studies are Helen Hill [Miller], George Mason: Constitutionalist (1938), and Robert A. Rutland, George Mason: Reluctant Statesman (1961).

Additional Sources

Rutland, Robert Allen, George Mason and the War for Independence, Williamsburg, Va.: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1976.

Rutland, Robert Allen, George Mason, reluctant statesman, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980 1961. □

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Mason, George

MASON, GEORGE

George Mason was an eighteenth-century statesperson who in 1776 wrote the Declaration of Rights for the State of Virginia and who later helped write the U.S. Constitution. Mason was a champion of liberty whose opposition to slavery and a strong federal government led him to refuse to sign the Constitution.

Mason was born on October 7, 1725, in Fairfax County, Virginia, the son of a wealthy commercial and agricultural family. Mason studied law but was primarily a plantation owner and real estate speculator. He was a neighbor of george washington. Mason was deeply interested in western expansion, and in 1749 he became a member of the Ohio Company, which developed land and trade on the upper Ohio River.

"Our all is at stake, and the little conveniences and comforts of life, when set in competition with our liberty, ought to be rejected not with reluctance but with pleasure."
—George Mason

At about this time, Mason helped found the city of Alexandria, Virginia. Because he suffered from chronic poor health, Mason avoided public office, serving only a short time in the Virginia

House of Burgesses. Yet he did not shun the political debate over British interference with the colonies. British attempts at taxing and controlling the colonies through the stamp act of 1765 and the townshend acts led many colonial leaders to consider political independence.

In 1775 Mason attended the Virginia convention, where he helped write most of the Virginia constitution. In June 1776 he wrote the virginia declaration of rights. thomas jefferson was probably familiar with Mason's concepts and language when he wrote the Declaration of Independence later that year, and other states soon copied Mason's work. French revolutionaries also showed they had been influenced by Mason's declaration in their Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was composed in 1789.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights stated that government derived from the people, that individuals were created equally free and independent, and that they had inalienable rights that the government could not legitimately deny them.

As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Mason was called on to write part of the first draft. By the end of the convention, however, he had become deeply alienated by the result. Although he came from a slaveholding state, Mason opposed slavery on both moral and economic grounds. He sought an end to the slave trade and the manumission of all slaves. Instead, the Constitution allowed the slave trade to continue for twenty years, and it said nothing about the institution of slavery.

Mason also objected to the lack of provision for individual rights, believing that the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government. His criticism contributed to the enactment and ratification of the bill of rights in 1791, portions of which were modeled on Mason's Declaration of Rights.

Mason died on October 7, 1792, at his estate in Fairfax County, Virginia.

further readings

Pacheco, Josephine F., ed. 1983. The Legacy of George Mason. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason Univ. Press.

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Mason, George

George Mason, 1725–92, American political leader, b. Fairfax co., Va. He was one of the most affluent of the colonial Virginia planters. In his triple capacity as trustee of Alexandria (1754–79), justice of the Fairfax county court, and vestryman of Truro parish, Mason exercised great influence in local politics. In 1752 he became a member of the Ohio Company (serving as treasurer until 1773), and in 1759 he was elected to the Virginia house of burgesses. An early opponent of British colonial policy, he drafted the nonimportation resolutions adopted (1769) by the burgesses against the British and also wrote (1774) the Fairfax Resolves, which restated the constitutional position of the colonies in relation to the crown. Mason served on the Virginia committee of safety, and as a member of the Virginia constitutional convention of 1776 he drafted the well-known declaration of rights, which was extensively copied by other American states, and which was drawn on by Thomas Jefferson in the first part of the Declaration of Independence. He was a member of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia (1787) and took an active part in drafting the Constitution; however, he objected to provisions for the centralization of power, the compromise between the New England and the Southern states on the tariff and slave trade issues, and the failure to include a bill of rights. Mason refused to sign the Constitution, and with Patrick Henry he led the fight in Virginia against its ratification; the bill of rights he advocated was the basis for some of the first 10 amendments (the Bill of Rights) to the Constitution.

See his papers, ed. by R. A. Rutland (3 vol., 1970); biographies by K. M. Rowland (1892, repr. 1964), R. A. Rutland (1961, repr. 1963), and F. Henri (1971).

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Mason, George

Mason, George (1725–92) US political leader. A wealthy Virginian, he was a principal author of the Virginia constitution and Declaration of Rights (1776), which influenced the US Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence.

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