July 24, 2019
George Mason – The Forgotten Founder
If you were asked to name a Founding Father from Virginia, George Mason may not be the first, second, or even third person to come to mind. In fact, Mason may be most famously known for refusing to sign the Constitution at the end of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Yet Mason’s contributions to the cause and country are beyond measure.
When he was born in 1725, Mason was already a fourth-generation American; his great-grandfather was a military exile after the English Civil War. As a land owner, Mason inherited many responsibilities, including local political, church, and military positions, although he was notably absent from their proceedings. He detested politics, but his opposition to the Stamp Act and other actions he increasingly found unfair moved him into action and into prominence.
In the battle for independence, Mason’s pen would be more effective than any sword he could wield. In 1774, Mason wrote the Fairfax Resolves, which George Washington introduced into the House of Burgesses. The Fairfax Resolves intended to set forth fundamental principles that foreshadowed demands yet to come, including “That people cannot be governed by laws for which they have not given their consent” and “That taxation and representation go hand-in-hand; therefore, without representation the colonists cannot be taxed by the British Parliament.”
In 1776, Mason authored both Virginia’s Declaration of Rights and Constitution. The former is argued to be the most influential document in American history, as it would become the foundation of the Bill of Rights. The Declaration of Independence would echo its opening paragraph, stating “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” The Declaration’s author, fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, was a great friend and admirer of Mason’s.
Despite his role in establishing the new country, Mason was not keen on a strong central government, fearing similar subjugation as under the British. During the Virginia Ratification Convention, he is reported to have said, “I would sooner chop off my right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.” Among the issues he raised were federal taxes and a federal judiciary, and he drafted potential amendments to the document. While the Constitution’s flaws were recognized, the assembly still passed it without alteration. Mason refused to sign and returned home unhappy with the result. His voice had not gone unheard, as the Bill of Rights with many of his ideas was ratified in 1791. After many years of poor health and perhaps with his concerns finally put to rest, Mason died in his home in 1792.