The Mason Spirit

George Mason

George Mason

Forgotten Founder

By Stephan A. Schwartz

This article first appeared in the May 2000 issue of Smithsonian magazine. Copyright 2000 by Stephan A. Schwartz, reprinted with permission.

It had rained over the weekend, breaking the sweltering heat that had made Philadelphia a cauldron for most of the summer of 1787. The air was cool and fresh on the Monday morning the delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered for a last time at the war-worn State House (now Independence Hall). They had argued among themselves up to the last minute, and even now not one of them was entirely happy with the results they had achieved.

The new Constitution, professionally copied out on parchment, lay on a small baize-covered table at the front of the room. Next to it was a silver inkstand and a newly trimmed goose quill. The delegates sat in silence as the fruit of their summer's labor was read to them. Then Benjamin Franklin, knowing how fragile the consensus for acceptance actually was, rose to try to explain why he was prepared to sign. At 81, was not up to the physical task, though, and his younger colleague James Wilson had to read his words. Franklin confessed there were several parts of the Constitution "which I do not at present approve."

Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts immediately asked to speak, offering at this final hour an amendment that would increase the size of the House. The meeting stood at a parlous point; it could easily spiral back into acrimonious debate. George Washington, one of the seven delegates from Virginia, stood to speak for the first and only time. Through the weeks of the debate, although the presiding officer, he had sat silently in front of the assembly. By his silence he had made himself the vessel of their commitment to integrity. His request that Gorham's change be approved, and that events move on, was irresistible. Finally, they lined up by state, with the New Hampshire delegation at the head. Franklin had to be helped to the small table and was said to be silently weeping as he wrote his name. Washington signed with almost unapproachable dignity, knowing, as they all did, that he would be the first President.

Only three people refused to sign. One of them was George Mason, who, more than any other individual, would influence all three American documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Sixty-two, of moderate height, with a round face and chestnut hair, this gouty and irascible militia colonel with large Virginia landholdings had been a slaveholder for most of his life. Yet now, because the Constitution created a federal government he felt might be too powerful, and because it did not end the slave trade and did not contain a Bill of Rights, he withheld his support from the document he had played so large a role in crafting.

His decision not to sign baffled some and alienated others, as he must have known it would. We will never know whether he appreciated what his refusal would cost him, but it is hard to believe that a man so aware of nuance in so many other public matters would have been unaware of what his stand would mean.

He had been born to George and Ann Thomson Mason in 1725, on a Potomac River plantation in what is now Fairfax County, Virginia, near today's Washington, D.C. His father drowned in a boating accident when George was 10, and the responsibility for his upbringing from then on was shared by his mother and his uncle, John Mercer.

In the 18th century, books were rare and valuable. Most families owned only a Bible and perhaps two or three other books, and even wealthy gentry might have no more than a few dozen. Mercer possessed more than 1,500 at the time of his death. Being given the run of such an extraordinary library afforded young Mason a significant opportunity. Mason, like his friend George Washington, would receive little formal training. Mercer's library was his real education.

In 1746, when he was 21, Mason assumed control of approximately 20,000 acres of prime land, broken into farms scattered across several counties in Virginia and Maryland. He proved to be successful at running colonial plantations, and his neighbors soon knew it. At his death, he owned 80,000 to 100,000 acres, and unlike many planters of the Revolutionary era, he was not crippled by debt.

Four years after taking control of his legacy, Mason married Ann Eilbeck, a planter's daughter. In an age when marriage was still largely seen through the prism of connections, theirs was a love match that lasted until Ann's death, 23 years later. They had 12 children together, nine of whom lived past childhood: five sons and four daughters. Although he was considered by many to be a difficult man, George's love for Ann was passionate, tender, and unwavering. Years later he chose to be buried next to her even though he had remarried.

Midway through their first decade together, Ann and George began the construction of a new home. Mason's Gunston Hall, like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Washington's Mount Vernon, became an extension of the man. Given Mason's wealth and station, it is surprisingly small--simple and restrained on the outside and very well appointed and elegant on the inside.

Mason's choice of the location for the new house also says a lot about the man. He could have sited Gunston Hall anywhere on his thousands of acres. He chose to put it near the main road that ran between Williamsburg'Virginia's colonial capital and most important urban center'and Philadelphia, then America's leading and most cosmopolitan city. Turning aside from their journeys, the colonial leaders rode up the drive to spend a day or a week sitting in his gardens looking out at the Potomac, riding over his land, eating at his well-stocked table, or gambling at loo or whist in his drawing room. Somewhere along the line, they discussed with Mason the latest information on events in the country. Jefferson, greatly influenced by him, called Mason "a man of the first order of wisdom." "My private intercourse with him," James Madison said, "was chiefly on occasional visits to Gunston when journeying to & fro from the North, in which his conversations were always a feast to me."

What may have made the advice Mason offered acceptable to many of the other Founding Fathers was not only its wisdom but that it came from someone who, unlike most of them, was not a competitor for office or public notice. Mason loved the philosophy of governance, and liked shaping it, but acknowledged that he had no tolerance for the jostling camaraderie of public political life, describing some officeholders as "Bablers."

Consulting Mason, however, was not for those put off by plain speaking. Fellow Virginian Edmond Randolph said, with some irony, that Mason was not "wantonly sarcastic." But Jefferson was blunter: "His elocution was neither flowing nor smooth; but his language was strong, his manner most impressive, and strengthened by a dash of biting cynicism, when provocation made it seasonable."

One person who didn't seem to mind was Mason's near neighbor, George Washington. When they got together they and their wives talked about farming and fashion, and about the slaves, whose presence was inextricably intertwined with their lives. It is hard for us today to understand slavery; the concept is so repugnant that even educational reenactments at living historic sites such as Williamsburg excite controversy. But 200 years ago slavery seemed a fixture of life. By the mid-18th century, however, some in the colonial elite to which the Washingtons and Masons belonged held deeply conflicting feelings about it.

Washington's final views were still forming, but even early on Mason's had become clear and characteristically acerbic: He had grown to loathe what the next century would call "the peculiar institution." In his typical blunt style he wrote, ". . . that slow Poison, [slavery] . . . is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People. Every Gentleman here is born a petty Tyrant. Practical in Acts of Despotism & Cruelty, we become callous to the Dictates of Humanity.... And in such an infernal School are to be educated our future Legislators & Rulers."

For all their inner-conflict, though, neither man had any clear idea what to do about slavery. To the 21st-century mind the answer is easy: free your slaves! But the 18th century was a different world, with different values. Even simple human considerations were complex on this issue. Freed slaves often had to leave the state, tearing apart lifelong relationships. Freeing them in the slave culture of Virginia, and its surrounding states, also meant making them vulnerable to, at best, exploitation and, at worst, recapture and re-enslavement. For the plantation owner, mass manumission also meant financial, and thus social, suicide.

As the years passed, the issue for Mason grew more and more intolerable. He came to believe that the importation of slaves should be stopped immediately. At the same time, according to one source, he felt that before emancipation could even be considered, a program of education should be begun so that the slaves could at least read and write.

Both Georges saw public service as a responsibility, but their approaches were very different. Washington, who was both ambitious and physically commanding viewed public office as part of his life's plan. Mason, by disposition, was a backroom man. While Washington was careful in his choice of words, famously in control of himself and rarely offended, Mason never shied away from controversy and was an early proponent of the separation of church and state, and a firm opponent of taxation without representation.

In 1773, when he was 48, his wife Ann died, leaving Mason devastated, and he tried to withdraw even further from public life. But a year later, Mason went up to spend the night at Mount Vernon. The invitation from Washington was more than social. The port of Boston had been closed, and the Virginia colonists felt a powerful need to somehow support the people of Massachusetts. To meet that need, Mason and Washington got together at Mount Vernon and wrote the Fairfax Resolves, outlining the colonists' constitutional grounds for their objections to the Boston Port Bill. It was the beginning of Mason's public writing on constitutional issues.

When Washington was named Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775, the Virginia Legislature asked Mason to take Washington's seat in that body. Almost immediately he was an "elder" to whom other members turned. Constant consultation, plus his natural affinity and passion for the subject, forced Mason to grapple in earnest with the relative rights of citizens and government, and how this might play out in the sweaty compromises of politics.

In 1776, Virginia delegates met at a convention whose purpose was to replace the House of Burgesses, the colonial legislature. Mason, now 51, was among those selected that year, and he felt he could not decline. Arriving late at the convention, he found himself already appointed to a committee charged with drafting a "Declaration of Rights" and a constitution.

On Saturday, May 4, little Rhode Island seceded, the first colony to declare its freedom from England. The news electrified the Virginians. Mason began work on May 18 filled with enthusiasm, but it didn't last. He complained to one of his closest friends, Richard Henry Lee, that the committee was "overcharged with useless Members ... [who would draft] a thousand ridiculous and impracticable proposals...." By the end of the first week, he had more or less pushed most of them aside. It is a measure of the respect in which he was held that the other delegates went along with this.

Edmund Pendleton, president of the Virginia Convention that year, wrote to Jefferson, then in Philadelphia representing Virginia at the Continental Congress, "The Political Cooks are busy in preparing the dish, and as Colo. Mason seems to have the Ascendancy in the great work, I have Sanguine hopes it will be framed so as to Answer it's [sic] end... but I am yet a stranger to the Plan."

The Plan began with the Enlightenment philosophy of the Englishman John Locke (1632-1704), whose work Mason had likely first encountered in his uncle's library. Locke argued that government's sole purpose was to protect the natural rights--life, liberty, and property--of the people. And he enumerated most of the rights Mason would later list. But it was Mason who saw why it was important to make Locke's abstractions law. He had come to a then-radical insight: that a republic had to begin with the formal, legally binding commitment that individuals had inalienable rights'rights that came from the Creator and were superior to any government.

One other committee member did play a significant role: James Madison, just 25 and beginning his public career. At first glance, he made an odd contrast with the stout, acerbic Mason, twice his age. Madison, slight of stature, was a university-educated bookish man of modest means who spoke with a soft voice. Yet, like Mason, Madison did his homework, knew his citations, and could marshal his thoughts into a compelling argument. And he never babbled.

That summer spent working with Mason on Virginia's Constitution and Declaration of Rights would become the precursor event upon which Madison would build his own place in history 11 years later when, only 36, he would be the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution.

But that wasn't all. Madison and Jefferson were close, communicating regularly and candidly, both seeing Mason, for all his crankiness, as a man of wisdom. Madison understood the implications of what Mason was doing and kept Jefferson apprised of their work. Virginia's Declaration of Rights would be an unprecedented political statement; nowhere in modern times had a government acknowledged such a concept as individual inalienable rights, let alone formalized it as a limitation on its own power.

Events, however, were moving almost faster than their correspondence. In the midst of Madison and Mason's work in Williamsburg, the Virginia Convention sent Richard Henry Lee to Philadelphia, where he introduced a measure declaring the colonies' independence. It was well received, and with the usual legislative courtesy of the day, Lee would normally have been made the chairman of the committee charged with drafting the declaration. But Lee learned his wife was sick and asked permission of the Congress to return home. In his place, that Tuesday, June 11, Jefferson was appointed. Jefferson, only 33, thought John Adams, as the more senior member of the committee, should draft the declaration. Adams soon made it clear that he felt Jefferson was the man for the job.

"Why will you not [write the declaration]?" Jefferson asked of Adams. Replied Adams, "First, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Third: You can write ten times better than I can."

But what to write, and how to write it? Part of the answer would soon arrive by courier from Williamsburg. The day after Jefferson was appointed, Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted in Williamsburg on Wednesday, June 12. The first article of the work began, "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." Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, with minor corrections from Franklin, Adams, and others, came to include the immortal words that make up what may be the most famous political statement in history: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." We credit Jefferson, but the impulse and content were clearly formed by George Mason.

On June 29, the Virginia Constitution Mason had principally authored was adopted, freeing him to return to Gunston Hall. The war, however, soon made any hopes for a private life impossible. During the Revolutionary War years, in addition to serving in the Virginia House of Delegates, Mason raised the funds for equipping a county militia. (He had been a militia colonel before the war, which fixed the rank to his name; thereafter, he was known as Colonel Mason.)

Throughout the war, Mason had watched Washington's struggles with the Continental Congress and Robert Morris' attempts to raise money, and had seen everything he despised about politicians confirmed. Still planning to spend time at home, he proposed to Sarah Brent, also in her 50s, of the nearby wealthy Brent planter family. It was to be a marriage of friendship and mutual comfort, but not the passionate romance he had had with Ann.

Mason found once again, however, that a completely private life was not to be his. A consensus had emerged that something had to be done about the Articles of Confederation, and a Constitutional Convention was planned. Franklin, who had deep respect for Native American cultures, called it the "Great Council Fire." It would be held in Philadelphia, and seven Virginians agreed to represent their state: Washington, Madison, George Wythe, Edmund Randolph, Dr. James McClurg, John Blair--and Mason. And so, at 62, he rode down his drive and onto the road as it snaked through the loblolly pines on a May morning in 1787. It was the longest trip Mason had ever made.

Many of the delegates, and certainly their appointing state committees, believed the purpose of the convention was to jigger with the Articles. But Madison had something very different in mind: he wanted to write an entirely new national constitution. Convincing his fellow Virginians to support him in this was not a trivial undertaking, and convincing the entire convention, even harder. One of the first people Madison turned to was Mason.

Mason's positions throughout the summer were consistent with his principles, even when, as was sometimes the case, they were against his own self-interest, or the interests of his Virginia. He argued against the interests of the rich when they abrogated the rights of the individual. He supported the power of the common man against the elite, arguing for popular elections. He fought fellow delegates who sought to hold on to power, arguing for the admission and full equality of any new western states. He worried about the power of a federal form of government and argued against the slave trade.

The unwillingness of the delegates to deal with slavery was only one of Mason's disappointments. By August, he was saying he would "rather chop off my right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands."

Toward the end of the convention, he proposed that a bill of rights preface the Constitution, but when the state delegations caucused'each state had only one vote'it quickly became evident that most of the delegates did not get his point. When his proposal was defeated 10 states to none, it was a dreadful blow.

Mason made a last effort to explain his reasons for the positions he had taken, sending to some friends 16 written objections. When his objections were still ignored, he turned his face against the new Constitution and refused to sign it. Because of his active involvement throughout the convention and his long association with constitutionalism, this refusal caused disappointment and consternation to the signers.

Assent of 9 of the 13 states was needed for ratification of the Constitution. Virginia cast the 10th affirmative vote. Among the Anti-Federalists in Virginia were Mason, Richard Henry Lee, future President James Monroe, and Patrick Henry. Among the Federalists, or supporters of the Constitution, were Washington, Madison, George Wythe, and John Marshall. After an unusually bitter debate, Virginia ratified the Constitution by an 89-79 vote. On "the first Wednesday in March"'March 4, 1789'the Constitution went into effect.

For Mason, his rejection had been a calculated act of public sacrifice; particularly painful to him was the effect his actions had on Washington, who would be governing under the new Constitution. We do not know Washington's exact feelings, but his actions make it clear he felt betrayed. If Franklin could sign, why not Mason? But Mason could see no way to avoid what he believed must be done: "You know the friendship which has long existed (indeed from our early youth) between General Washington and myself," he would write, "...[but] I would not forfeit the approbation of my own mind for the approbation of any man or all the men upon earth."

He and Washington never visited each other again. Shortly before Mason's death five years after the convention, Washington referred to him as his former friend.

Mason retired to Gunston Hall for the last time, even as the perspective about him was changing--at least within the state and national leadership. He was invited to become one of Virginia's senators in the first U.S. Senate, but he declined. During the months since the convention, Mason's sacrifice had had its effect. At the first session of the first Congress, Madison introduced a bill of rights that paralleled Mason's Virginia declaration. Mason commented from Gunston Hall: "I have received much Satisfaction from the Amendments to the federal Constitution, which have lately passed . . . [w]ith two or three further Amendments . . . I cou'd cheerfully put my Hand & Heart to the new Government."

Sometime in late September, Mason contracted what was called "the fever of the Season," probably malaria which, was endemic in Virginia during the late summer and early fall each year. He died at home on October 7, 1792. In his will he did not free his slaves, as Washington would several years later. Although it would be hard to prove, it is interesting to speculate as to whether Mason's views influenced Washington. Born into a slave-owning world, Washington did not initially question its order. By the time he became President, however, Washington had begun to see slavery as wrong. He made provision in his will for the freeing of his slaves and made arrangements for the elderly among them.

Why Mason did not do this we will never know, but if he remained true to his convictions, and it is hard to imagine Mason doing anything else, perhaps he did not free them because he could not see how a single planter acting alone could effect a solution in a matter the nation as a whole should address. In the end, it may have been as simple as this: Family was more important even than principle. Mason was unwilling to bankrupt his children. It cannot have been an easy decision. Washington, who had no children, did not have to face that choice.

Although recognized by his fellow Founding Fathers, Mason never overcame the public's disregard for him as the result of his stand at the Constitutional Convention, and the events that flowed out of it. His obituaries were small, and as time passed he was largely forgotten, except as a name on high schools and a university in Virginia.

But to those few who have looked deeply into America's democracy, Mason's star has never dimmed nor has his influence waned. In the House chamber, his marble relief hangs with those of other great lawgivers: Moses, the Babylonian king Hammurabi, and Thomas Jefferson. When the United Nations was founded, his ideas were echoed in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In October 1949, President Harry S Truman wrote to a correspondent, "Too few Americans realize the vast debt we owe [George Mason]. His immortal Declaration of Rights in 1776 was one of the finest and loftiest creations ever struck from the mind of man.... Our matchless Bill of Rights came directly from the amazing wisdom and far-seeing vision of this patriot.... That is why I say that George Mason will forever hold a special place in our hearts."