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Mason, George (1725–1792)

MASON, GEORGE (1725–1792)

An influential Virginia leader of the Revolutionary period, George Mason served only a single term (1759–1760) in the colony's House of Burgesses. Family responsibilities and a dislike for routine legislative work kept him at his estate in Fairfax County, where he was active in local public affairs. He was a member and treasurer of the Ohio Company (1752–1773), the Virginia enterprise to explore and settle the Northwest Territory. Mason opposed parliamentary taxation of the colonies and, as justice of the peace, connived at evasion of the Stamp Act. His Fairfax Resolves of 1774 were introduced by his friend and neighbor george washington in the House of Burgesses and prefigured the Declaration and Resolves of the first continental congress. In 1775 Mason succeeded Washington as a member of Virginia's provisional legislature and was elected to the Committee of Safety, the de facto executive. At the Virginia convention of 1776, Mason wrote the virginia declaration of rights and a major part of the constitution. At the same convention he was appointed, along with george wythe, edmund pendleton, and thomas jefferson, to a committee to revise the state's laws; and, although he resigned from the committee, many of his drafts were included in the final product. Throughout the Revolution he remained active in military and western affairs, and he was the author of an early plan for ceding the Northwest Territory to Congress and organizing its government.

Mason was at the meeting at Mount Vernon in 1785 that set in train the movement toward a constitutional convention; and he was elected to, but did not attend, the Annapolis Convention. He was a delegate to the constitutional convention of 1787 where he was one of the five most frequent speakers. He made his mark at the convention as a spokesman for republican nationalism. He favored a president elected directly by the people for a single seven-year term and assisted by a council. He opposed any mention of slavery in the Constitution as degrading to the document. He was a member of the committee that proposed the great compromise but bitterly opposed the later compromise which gave twenty years' protection to the slave trade. Most decisively he desired to see a bill of rights included in the new constitution: "The laws of the United States are to be paramount to state bills of rights," he warned, and a constitutional guarantee of rights "would give great quiet to the people." The motion to draft a bill of rights was defeated, and Mason, who had been active in framing the new Constitution, accordingly refused to sign it. He sent his proposed bill of rights to richard henry lee who tried, but failed, to have Congress add it before transmitting the Constitution to the states.

Mason opposed ratification of the constitution in the Virginia convention of 1788 because of its supposed antirepublican tendencies, its compromise with slavery, and its want of a bill of rights. When the convention voted to ratify the Constitution it appended a declaration of rights that closely followed Mason's declaration of 1776.

Mason thereafter retired from public life. He declined appointment as a United States senator in 1790. Shortly before his death he told Thomas Jefferson that the machinations of alexander hamilton in favor of urban monied interests were bearing out Mason's predictions about the Constitution.

Throughout his public career Mason adhered to principle even in apparent contradiction to his self-interest. Although he held some 300 slaves he abominated slavery as an institution and favored a plan of gradual compensated emancipation preceded by education. Although he was an active Anglican layman, he favored measures to end the establishment of religion in Virginia.

Dennis J. Mahoney
(1986)

Bibliography

Rowland, Kate Mason 1892 The Life of George Mason, Including His Speeches, Public Papers, and Correspondence. New York: Putnam's.

Rutland, Robert Allen 1961 George Mason, Reluctant Statesman. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg, distributed by Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York.

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