Fairfax County, Virginia
Died October 7, 1792
Fairfax County, Virginia
Political leader, judge, plantation owner, writer
George Mason was one of the most important Americans of Revolutionary times. The intelligent and thoughtful man made a great impact on the development of the American government. He is especially remembered for the passionate arguments he made in favor of freedom for individuals at the Federal Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1787. There the Constitution of the United States was written and passed.
George Mason was born in 1725 on the Virginia plantation of his parents, George and Ann Thomson Mason. His father drowned when Mason was ten. With the approval of Mason's mother, his uncle, a lawyer named John Mercer, took charge of bringing up the boy. Mason had access to his uncle's large library of law books and was taught by private tutors. He gained a good grasp of the classics, the writings and languages of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
In his late teens, the wealthy young man began running the family plantation, one of the largest in Virginia. He had a cranky personality, and he tended to be overly concerned about his health. Still he became a popular and important person in his community. In 1750 he married Anne Eilbeck, with whom he had five sons and four daughters. Between 1755 and 1758 he designed and supervised the building of his own grand home, Gunston Hall.
Fights in French and Indian War
In 1752 Mason and fellow Virginian, George Washington see entry, became part owners of a business called the Ohio Company, which bought and sold land for profit in the Great Lakes region. Through this venture, both Virginia aristocrats became familiar with what was then the American frontier, and they soon got caught up in a frontier war.
In the mid-eighteenth century, France and England were engaged in a worldwide war that in 1754 spilled over onto the North American frontier. The French saw the Ohio Company's colonizing efforts in America's west as a challenge to their claims to the region. Rivalry between France and England and her colonies over the western lands led to the French and Indian War (1754–63).
In that war, American militia (pronounced ma-LISH-a) men fought with the British against the French and their Indian allies. (Militia men were volunteer soldiers; America did not have a regular army.) Mason acted as a supply agent for troops commanded by George Washington. He also served as a captain in the war and earned the rank of colonel (pronounced KER-nuhl) in the Virginia militia.
Mason maintained a lifetime interest in the development of the Great Lakes region. He was a leading member of a committee that approved the expedition of explorer George Rogers Clark into the region now known as the Midwest. Clark carried out the first survey of the area and he later supervised settlement there.
Joins with colonial groups to protest taxation
During this time, Mason began to take an interest in public life. Between 1754 and 1779 he served on the board of directors of the city of Alexandria, Virginia, and was a justice of the Fairfax County Court. In 1758 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, the representative assembly of colonial Virginia, where he served with George Washington. But he grew tired of the routine and retired in 1760 after two terms.
At the end of French and Indian War, England was heavily in debt and began to pass tax laws to raise money in the colonies to pay off those war debts. As a private citizen, Mason voiced his opposition to the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765. Mason wrote a letter to England's King George III see entry expressing the outrage of the American colonists and their opposition to what they viewed as unfair taxation.
In the years before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War (1775–83), the colonies set up "committees of correspondence." These were groups of people who aroused public opinion and organized acts of defiance against Great Britain. George Mason became involved in the Virginia committee after the passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767. These Acts imposed taxes on glass, lead, paints, paper items, and tea. To protest these taxes, Mason helped form an association that agreed to stop buying British goods until British merchants joined the colonists in demanding a repeal of the taxes.
Suffers personal tragedy, begins political writing
Between 1767 and 1773, Mason concentrated on running his plantation and raising his family. His wife, Anne, fell ill in 1772 and died a year later at age thirty-nine. That same year Mason wrote his first important public paper, "Extracts from Virginia Charters, with Some Remarks upon Them."
The paper examined the legal rights of the Ohio Company and showed Mason's skill in analyzing legal and political matters. It was one of many such writings that appeared in the days before the American Revolution, writings that explained how American colonists had the same rights as English citizens. It was also one of several papers written by Mason that would influence the writers of later documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War.
Serves at Virginia Convention
By 1774 American colonists were becoming openly rebellious against Great Britain. Mason took on an important role in national politics when he helped patriot Patrick Henry see entry draft the "Fairfax Resolves." These papers stated the legal position of the American colonies in relation to Great Britain, pointing out how British taxation policies were violating colonial rights.
In July 1775 Mason was elected to the Virginia Convention as Virginia prepared to take part in the upcoming struggle to gain freedom from Great Britain. He replaced George Washington, who had been named commander-in-chief of the newly formed Continental army.
Opinion in the Virginia Convention was sharply divided over the question of going to war with the mother country, and quarrels were frequent. Mason later wrote to Washington, "I was never in so disagreeable a situation, and almost despaired of a cause which I found so ill conducted. Mere [annoyance] and disgust threw me into such an ill state of health that before the convention rose, I was sometimes near fainting in the House." Mason helped set the House session back on course when it began to fall apart due to political disputes and confusion about how to proceed.
Throughout his lifetime, Mason never enjoyed serving on committees and often arrived late for meetings. He expressed contempt for those he called "babblers," people who talk on and on and are commonly found in politics. But no other Virginia lawmaker was as respected and carefully listened to. His reputation grew, and the other delegates wanted Mason to succeed Washington as their representative to the Continental Congress. The Continental Congress was a group of representatives from the American colonies who met to express grievances against British colonial policy; they had created the Continental army to fight against the British. Mason avoided serving in the congress by pleading that he had to take care of his motherless children.
Writes Virginia's Bill of Rights and Constitution
Even before July 1776, when America declared its independence from England and the thirteen colonies officially became states, Virginia had already begun the hard work of forming a new government. In April 1776 Mason was elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention to help write the constitution for his home state. He spent the spring studying and discussing forms of government with other prominent leaders. Virginia's convention voted "to prepare a Declaration of Rights and such a plan of government as will be most likely to maintain peace and order in this colony and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people."
Over a mere six weeks, Mason took part in discussions and wrote the first draft for the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was adopted as the Virginia Bill of Rights by the convention on June 12, 1776. Mason's declaration laid out some basic principles of republican government (a system in which voters hold the power and elect representatives to carry out the voters' wishes). It also affirmed the right to trials by jury and it supported religious tolerance. It became a model used by other colonies and guided Thomas Jefferson see entry when he wrote the first section of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Writes Virginia Constitution, helps form federal government
James Madison see entry, later a U.S. President, called George Mason the "master builder" of Virginia's 1776 constitution. During the six-week period in which he wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason also wrote the first constitution of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia. It passed with no opposition on June 29, 1776.
About this event, Edmund Pendleton, the head of the delegates at that convention, wrote to Thomas Jefferson, "the political cooks are busy in preparing the dish, and as Colonel Mason seems to [be in charge of] the great work, I have [confidence] it will be framed so as to answer its end."
During the war years from 1776 to 1780, the former British colonies, now American states, were busy forming a new national government. Much lawmaking activity took place in Philadelphia, then the nation's capital. George Mason played a major role in helping to establish a national government independent of Great Britain. He was also active in organizing military affairs for the new nation, especially in the western frontier.
Retires from public life, then returns to it
The Revolution officially ended in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. By that time, Mason believed the new American government was on firm footing and decided to retire from public life. With his second wife, Sarah Brent, whom he had married three years earlier, he went to live quietly at Gunston Hall. When people tried to get him involved in government affairs, he explained that their efforts were an invasion of his personal liberty.
But Mason cared too much about his country to stay completely out of politics. Gunston Hall was located on the main road from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia. State and national leaders often passed by Mason's house and stopped to get his advice on political matters.
In 1785 Mason emerged from semi-retirement to participate in talks about the Articles of Confederation, which were used to govern the United States during the war. The Articles were not considered adequate to govern the new nation. Finally it was decided that a constitution was needed, and a Federal Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1787 to draw one up.
Suggests changes to proposed U.S. Constitution
In 1787 Mason was one of Virginia's representatives at the Federal Constitutional Convention. He became one of the major speakers, forcefully presenting his point of view. The delegates to the convention had many different views about how a government should be organized. Mason believed that all men—both rich and poor—are born with certain natural rights to life and freedom; protecting these rights for all, he said, must be the cornerstone of government policies.
Some delegates, led by George Washington and others, wanted a strong central government. This view was supported by several different factions, many of them made up largely of wealthy men. Businessmen, traders, and ship owners, who suffered financially when the states argued about taxes, favored a strong central government. Men who had lent money to the government thought a strong central government would be more likely to pay them back. Some rich men were afraid that if poor men ran the states, they might issue large sums of worthless money or protect people with bad debts. Westerners who lived on the wild frontier wanted a powerful central government to protect them from possible Indian, Spanish, and British invasions.
Mason expressed his opposition to the strong central government proposed by the new constitution in a paper, "Objections to the Proposed Federal Constitution." It is considered one of his best pieces of writing. In it, Mason stated that the U.S. House of Representatives proposed by the new constitution did not really represent all the people. He believed that the proposed U.S. Senate would be too powerful. He also said that the proposed justice system would allow the rich to oppress the poor. He expressed his fear that the country might be ruled by kings and queens or could fall into the hands of corrupt, rich citizens.
Mason also objected to a provision in the U.S. Constitution that allowed the slave trade to continue until 1808. Mason, like many Southern landowners, relied on slaves to work his farm. Still, he recognized that slavery was an evil institution and urged that the slave trade be ended as soon as possible. His view lost out to those who wanted more time before the slave trade was discontinued.
Proposes Bill of Rights, refuses to sign Constitution
In order to protect individual rights, Mason proposed that a bill of rights be added to the Constitution, and he was highly disappointed when his proposal was defeated. His proposal that a second convention be held was also voted down.
In the end, Mason refused to sign the U.S. Constitution adopted by the Convention. According to the notes of James Madison, Mason stated he "would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to [sign] the constitution as it now stands."
Opposes Virginia's adoption of the U.S. Constitution
When the Federal Constitutional Convention completed its work, conventions were held in each state to decide whether or not to adopt the U.S. Constitution. At the Virginia convention, held in June 1788, James Madison supported it. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also added their support in writing, although they were not able to attend the convention. Mason and Patrick Henry opposed it.
Lively debate on the topic took place. Virginia finally approved the Constitution by a vote of 89-79. Upset and angry after his lost political battle, George Mason went home to Gunston Hall. He turned down several government job offers, because he preferred to offer his advice in a more casual way to leaders who came to visit him.
But Mason left his mark on the U.S. Constitution. A Bill of Rights was included in the version of the Constitution that was finally adopted on December 15, 1791. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by Mason, served as the basis of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights is made up of the first ten amendments (additions) to the Constitution and protects basic rights of individuals from being stepped on by the federal government.
In the 1790s, Mason retired from state and national politics for good. But being a man of strong opinions, he spent his last years feuding with other members of the Fairfax County Court over the location of a new courthouse and other local affairs. Mason died on October 7, 1792, and was buried at Gunston Hall. In February 1795, the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was put in place. It addressed Mason's demand that the court system have some limits placed on its powers.
Several presidents of the United States honored George Mason as an outstanding thinker. Thomas Jefferson once referred to him as "the wisest man of his generation," and James Madison praised him as "a powerful reasoner, a profound statesman, and a devoted republican."
For More Information
Allison, Robert J. "George Mason." American Eras: The Revolutionary Era, 1754-1783. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998, pp. 192-93.
Boatner, Mark M., III. "Mason, George." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 682-83.
Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes. "Mason, George." American National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, vol. 14, pp. 645-647.
"A Biography of George Mason, 1725-1792." Text copied from National Archives and Records Administration: The Founding Fathers' Page for The American Revolution—an.HTML project, 1997. Department of Humanities Computing. [Online] Available http://odur.let.rug.nl~usa/B/gmason/mason.htm (accessed on 9/12/99).
"George Mason Writings and Biography." National Archives and Record Administration. Copyright at Common Law by LEXREX, 1998. [Online] Available http://www.lexrex.com/bios/gmason.htm (accessed on 9/12/99).
Williams, Gary. "George Mason." The Freeman, May, 1992. Copyright 1988 by Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. The American Revolution—an.HTML project. [Online] Available http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/B/gmason/gmasxx.htm (accessed on 9/12/99).
Mason, George (1725-1792)
George Mason (1725-1792)
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 Virginia’s break with England, Mason drafted the state’s 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 father’s estate, so his mother shrewdly added to her own holdings to give his younger sister and brother an inheritance. George’s uncle, lawyer John Mercer, acted as a guardian to the Mason children, and in Mercer’s 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-brother’s 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 county’s 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 it’s Slaves.” The Resolves asked the king not to reduce his subjects to desperation as “from our Sovereign there can be but one Appeal.” Mason’s 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 community’s Committee of Safety, and, in Washington’s 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 Virginia’s 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 Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, for other state constitutions, for France’s 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 Mason’s declaration. Mason, and most of Virginia’s 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 Mason’s 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 Mason’s original draft. A Boston slave named Quok Walker sued for his freedom, arguing that this constitution prohibited slavery, and the Massachusetts courts agreed. Had Virginia’s convention not amended Mason’s 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 Virginia’s 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.
Helen Hill Miller, George Mason: Gentleman Revolutionary (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975).
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.
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).
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. □
MASON, GEORGE. (1725–1792). American statesman, constitutionalist. Virginia. Born in Stafford County, Virginia, in 1725, George Mason was the son of a wealthy planter. He became well known as the master of Gunston Hall, built on the Potomac River below Alexandria between 1755 and 1758, which was accounted one of the finest buildings in colonial Virginia. For several reasons, his important role in the years preceding the Revolution were played off stage: he valued his privacy, suffered from chronic ill health, his wife died early in 1773, and he had nine children. He sat in the House of Burgesses from 1758 to 1761, served as Treasure of Ohio County in 1752, and came to know every powerful man in the Chesapeake region over the ensuing twenty years.
In 1769 he drafted the nonimportation agreement introduced in the assembly by his friend and neighbor, George Washington. He did likewise with the Fairfax resolves of 18 July 1774. In July 1775 he succeeded Washington in the Virginia convention. He was immediately elected to the Committee of Safety that took over the powers vacated by John Murray Dunmore. As a member of the May 1776 convention, he framed the Virginia Bill of Rights and Constitution. This piece of writing had wide influence: Thomas Jefferson drew on it in drafting the first part of the Declaration of Independence; it was copied by many states; it was the basis for the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution; and it even had influence in the French Revolution. Mason's state constitution was also a remarkably successful pioneering effort. He was involved with the revision of state laws and with disestablishment. He was on the committee that authorized the Western operations of George Rogers Clark, and he received Clark's full report.
A believer in states' rights, Mason was one of three of the forty-two delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia who refused to sign the final draft. (The others were Gerry and Edmund Randolph.) His views were expressed in "Objections to This Constitution of Government," which was widely read and influenced the structure of other anti-federalist writings. He attended the Virginia ratifying convention, where he and Patrick Henry almost succeeded in defeating the Constitution. Mason never reconciled to the new form of government, even after the passage of the Bill of Rights. He died at Gunston Hall on 7 October 1792.
SEE ALSO Murray, John.
Rutland, Robert A., ed. The Papers of George Mason, 1725–1792. 3 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
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."
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.
Pacheco, Josephine F., ed. 1983. The Legacy of George Mason. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason Univ. Press.
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).