The Reading Room
Why George Mason Matters
There is an unfortunate tendency among students of the American founding to focus on the accomplishments of a few “famous founders” while ignoring the salient contributions of an expansive fraternity of “forgotten founders.” One almost forgotten figure is George Mason (1725-1792) of Virginia.
Despite an aversion to public life, Mason played pivotal roles in important assemblies of his state and nation, including the Virginia Conventions in 1775 and 1776, the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788.
He was one of the most voluble delegates at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, leaving his mark on the U.S. Constitution. In the end, however, he refused to sign the final document. Chief among his objections was its lack of a bill of rights – a criticism that so resonated with skeptics of the proposed Constitution that its proponents were compelled to add the national Bill of Rights to assuage this concern.
His most enduring legacy was his contribution to key political documents of the founding era. He was the principal draftsman of his state’s first constitution and, most famously, Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which is still enshrined in the Commonwealth’s laws.
Mason’s legacy is also shaped by the institution of slavery. He was one of Virginia’s largest slaveholders. Slavery was integral to life at Gunston Hall, his plantation on the south bank of the Potomac River. Tellingly, he did not free his slaves in life or in death.
And, yet, his biographers disagree about how to interpret his views on slavery. Some say he was comfortable with slavery, reflecting the attitudes of other southern landowners of his social standing; others claim the institution greatly discomfited him.
We cannot know for sure what was in his heart, but we know some of the things he did and said regarding slavery – and ambiguity arises from the fact that these don’t always point in the same direction.
He opposed the continued importation of slaves, although one cannot be certain whether he was motivated by principle or profit or both. As a well-established slave owner, he would have benefitted financially from discontinuing further importation.
Mason made important statements decrying the evils of slavery, especially the deleterious effects of the contemptible institution on morals and manners. Slavery, he wrote, is “that slow Poison, which is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People. Every Gentlemen here is born a petty Tyrant. Practiced in Acts of Despotism & Cruelty, we become callous to the Dictates of Humanity, & all the finer feelings of the Soul.” In the system of slavery, he continued, “we lose that Idea of the Dignity of Man, which the Hand of Nature had implanted in us, for great & useful purposes. Habituated from our Infancy to trample upon the Rights of Human Nature, every generous, every liberal Sentiment, if not extinguished, is enfeebled in our Minds.”
Mason was the principal draftsman of the seminal Declaration of Rights adopted by the Virginia Convention on June 12, 1776. It was a distilled amalgam of human rights derived from British constitutionalism and common law. It has been celebrated as the first true bill of rights framed by the people acting through elected representatives. It informed many other state declarations of rights, the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
The Declaration contains sixteen articles, affirming the “inherent rights” of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness and safety; describing government power as vested in and derived from the people; outlining the separation of the state’s “legislative and executive powers” from the “judiciary”; and enumerating individual rights free from government restrictions.
Perhaps most noteworthy is the final article that, as amended by a young James Madison, boldly declared that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” This affirmed the right of religious exercise, not as a mere grant of government benevolence, but as a fundamental, natural right, possessed equally by all citizens, located beyond the reach of civil magistrates and subject only to the dictates of a free conscience.
The first article famously declared (in a sentence that informed the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence) “THAT all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights . . .; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” The late Pauline Maier, an eminent historian of the Declaration of Independence, remarked, Mason’s “phrase ‘all men are born equally free and independent’ [as the phrase appeared in Mason’s original draft] influenced the Declaration of Independence and one state Declaration of Rights after another. Those are perhaps some of the most important words in any American founding document.”
One cannot avoid the contradiction of a slaveholding Virginian proclaiming the great principles of liberty. Mason could be dismissed as a hypocrite. The universal character of the Declaration’s rights claims, however, forced consideration of its implications for enslaved peoples and the institution of slavery and gave it a reach far beyond Virginia’s borders. The immortal words “all men are born equally free and independent” compelled a nation (and people around the world) to confront a contradiction and commence a conversation that would culminate – not immediately, but eventually – in the abolition of slavery in Virginia and the nation.
It would be a mistake to give this one man too much credit for terminating an institution that had existed for millennia in every corner of the world. Nonetheless, his words, refined and amplified in the Declaration of Independence, provoked arguments and set in motion movements that would ultimately undercut slavery and affirm the dignity of all humanity.