On December 15, an anniversary will come and go with little or no fanfare. It will probably pass unnoticed, even though it is the anniversary of one of the greatest events in the history of written law. On that day, the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America, commonly known as the Bill of Rights, will have been ratified for 211 years.
The man most responsible for penning freedoms into written law is also the man most ignored in American history.
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.
Never before had ideas such as these been written into law — that the rights of citizens superseded even those of the nation or any state, county, or city within that nation. But who wrote them? Who was the “legislator of America,” as he was called by many of his colleagues?
One might guess they were written by Thomas Jefferson, while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence. But Jefferson was anticipated and undoubtedly influenced by a man whom he described as a statesman “of the first order of wisdom among those who acted on the theater of revolution.” The man who was the first to give constitutional status to the principle that rights are not the gift of government, but are inherent in every individual human being, and that the only purpose of government is to protect these rights was George Mason, a legislator from Virginia.
If one were to inquire about Mason today, one would receive very little response. Most people know only that he participated in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and that he was one of those who refused to sign the first draft of the U.S. Constitution. Very few know it was Mason who was the first to draft a written constitution that included man’s inherent right to life, liberty, and the freedom to pursue and obtain happiness. This man, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, had a profound influence on the making of the Constitution of the United States of America and specifically the Bill of Rights.
Mason’s father died when George was only nine and from that age on he was responsible for managing his family’s plantation. He was unable to attend college. Thus, Mason, with the help of his uncle’s library, became a self-taught lawyer and soon a leading authority on land laws. He was admired by peers and laymen alike.
He and George Washington entered the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1759. Mason stayed in the political limelight throughout the rest of his life. Even when the wife he took in 1750, Ann Eilbeck, died in 1773, leaving him with nine children, he continued his political life because of his strong belief that it was the only way to make home and family free from oppression. He wrote the Fairfax Resolves of 1774 — a list of grievances against the Mother Country (England), and a proposal for establishing a constitutional colonial government. It was not until he wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights in May 1776 that it became apparent that he was not just another secessionist but a champion for individual liberties.
Although others, such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, have received most of the credit, it was Mason who wrote down the original ideas on individual freedom. According to R. Carter Pittman, in an article titled George Mason, The Architect of American Liberty,
Thomas Jefferson never drafted a single liberty-preserving provision of any Constitution or Bill of Rights that has ever been adopted in America. He never attended a Constitutional Convention in his life. He spent much of his life writing constitutions for Virginia that were all rejected by his contemporaries because they preferred the one Mason had written for them too well. The only connection Jefferson ever had with our Bill of Rights was that he favored it from afar.
John Adams wrote in his diary (June 23, 1777),
He [Benjamin Franklin] is a great philosopher but as a legislator of America he had done very little. It is believed in France, England, and all Europe that his electric wand has accomplished all this revolution, but nothing is more groundless.… It is believed that he made all the American Constitutions and their Confederation but he made neither. He did not even make the Constitution of Pennsylvania bad as it is. The Bill of Rights [Pennsylvania’s] is taken almost verbatim from that of Virginia [Virginia Declaration of Rights], which was made and published two or three months before that of Philadelphia [Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights, late August 1776] was begun, it was made by Mr. Mason….
Because Mason was a member of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, taking an active role in drafting the Constitution, it seems ironic that a man who spent so much of his time and effort to establish “a more perfect union” would refuse to sign the document which was to do just that; but this is just what Mason did — with good reasoning. His objections revolved around the fact that the Constitution contained no bill of rights. “There is no Declaration of Rights,” he stated, “and the laws of the general Government being paramount of the Laws and Constitutions of the several states, the Declarations of Rights in the seperate States are no Security.”
Mason’s objections to the Constitution
What follows are some of Mason’s objections:
- The Constitution was too loosely worded and he feared that it would be used to deny individual and states’ rights, so he opposed the formation of a strong central government.
- He insisted that a bill of rights be included in the Constitution and was particularly afraid that, without a guarantee in writing, the right of due process of law and the freedom to choose one’s religion and to write what one pleases would soon be denied.
- He stated that the Constitution contained a central contradiction, the sanctioning of slavery. “Every master of slaves is a born petty tyrant,” he said, and believed, as did Jefferson, that a gradual abolition of slavery should be enacted immediately. He tended to be disgusted by most of his fellow delegates, who compromised and bargained on the issues of slavery and commerce (i.e., trading silence on slavery issues for support on interstate commerce clauses).
- He objected to the taxation powers of the government and foresaw “one tax leading to another and to the creation of an agency to enforce collection.… Put the purse and sword in the same hand,” he said, “and you would see an end to liberty.”
- He also objected to the fact that under this Constitution Congress would pass laws with only a majority vote.
- Mason also feared that an all-powerful federal judiciary would destroy state courts and make legal action “tedious, intricate, and expensive, enabling the rich to oppress and ruin the poor.”
- Mason strongly objected to a Constitution that would permit the existence of standing armies in peacetime.
- He was fearful that the Senate had too much power.
In a warning statement he said,
Under their own construction of the general clause at the end of the enumerated powers, the Congress may grant: Monopolies in trade and commerce, constitute new crimes, inflict unusual and severe punishments, and extend their power as far as they shall think proper.
He continued to object to the passage and ratification of the Constitution and, with fellow anti-Federalists such as Patrick Henry, carried his struggle for a federal bill of rights to the people. He barely lived long enough to see the victory for which he so bitterly fought. The Bill of Rights was adopted in December 1791 and Mason died in 1792. Because of the bitterness that ensued throughout his struggles, his name and deeds were buried beneath those of more charismatic and flamboyant revolutionary heroes.
Though his name was lost, the first 10 Amendments to the federal Constitution were monumental attempts to satisfy his objections to a constitution without a bill of rights.
In addition to the omission of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution there was also a slight change made in the beginning section of the Declaration of Independence to which Mason had objected. (This “preamble,” by the way, was also a variation of the first three paragraphs of Mason’s Declaration of Rights.) His objections included the change in the words “pursuing and obtaining happiness” to the “pursuit of happiness.” His objection was not unfounded, for as he himself saw,
The liberty to pursue happiness is enjoyed by slaves. It is nothing.… It may be obtained only in a government in which every unnecessary restraint on the individual is expressly forbidden by stubborn laws, and where laws rule the rulers as well as the ruled with the same force.
Mason’s freedom legacy
It is understandable that Jefferson regarded Mason as the wisest man of his generation, that James Madison described him as the greatest debater he had ever heard speak, and that Patrick Henry named him the greatest statesman he had ever known. But it is difficult to believe that current history books now in use in high schools, junior colleges, and universities have little more to say about George Mason than that he was one of the anti-Federalists who attended the Constitutional Convention.
I must agree with author Joyce F. Jones, who stated in her article “The Forgotten Hero” (Persuasion, February 1968),
It is regrettable that Mason’s story never became part of the popular folklore of the Revolutionary period because he was one of America’s most influential spokesmen for these principles: The political philosophy of rights and limited government,
because it is perhaps due to George Mason’s reluctance to compromise the moral principles he stated in his Virginia Declaration of Rights that the Bill of Rights even exists today. Perhaps one day if enough know of and appreciate what he did for America, he will receive the credit to which he is due; and perhaps as July 4 is celebrated as the beginning of a fight for freedom, December 15 will be celebrated by those who respect and cherish the freedoms for which George Mason and the anti-Federalists so gallantly fought.