Monday, January 31, 2011
"In all our associations; in all our agreements let us never lose sight of this fundamental maxim - that all power was originally lodged in, and consequently is derived from, the people."
George Mason was one of the "Founding Fathers," though is largely forgotten today. He is the force behind many of the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Born to a wealthy Virginia family near the Potomac River in 1725, Mason lost his father at an early age so he was raised by his mother and uncle. Hamlet alert! His uncle was a prominent lawyer and Mason benefited from his uncle's library of 1,500 volumes that mostly included books on history and law. Though his later works would influence governments around the world, Mason had very little formal teaching and basically taught himself using his uncle's library. This is where he formed some of his strongest opinions-that too strong a central government was dangerous and that there must be protected rights for individuals- as well as his lifelong opposition to slavery (although he was, like Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner).
Known as an intensely private man, Mason believed in public service, but had no desire for the limelight and no interest in the "babblers" of national politics (he was elected to Continental Congress in 1777 but refused the seat). Yet despite his disdain for national politics, his extensive legal knowledge, his strong beliefs in personal freedoms, and his hatred of British tyranny led him to a prominent position in the shaping of the United States.
In 1776 he was asked to write the Virginia's Declaration of Rights (assisted by James Madison). That document is widely considered to be one of the most influential and important papers in the history of modern democratic government. Along with the "pursuit of happiness," the extraordinary declaration also called for a separation of government powers, guaranteed freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and trial by a jury of one's peers. It would soon serve as a model for other state declarations, and eventually for Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, which spurred the American Revolution.
In the summer of 1787, Mason, now an elder statesman, was called out of retirement to attend the Constitutional Convention and to assist in writing the new nation's constitution. He took the job very seriously and delivered more than 136 speeches on the convention floor. But as the work progressed, Mason grew to dislike the direction in which he saw the document headed. He announced "that he would sooner chop off his right hand" than see such a constitution passed. He felt that the working constitution was flawed because it didn't contain a Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court was made too powerful, the president had excessive pardoning powers, slaves were allowed to be imported for another 20 years, and the proposed constitution threatened to "produce a monarchy or a corrupt, tyrannical aristocracy."
The Constitution was signed, and Mason was not one of the ones who did so. After having been so influential in the document's creation, he refused to sign it, and the move is said to have cost him his long friendship with George Washington. As more and more Americans read the Constitution after its initial signing, it became obvious that many people shared Mason's biggest fear: that it contained no bill of rights. In fact, many of the states ratified it only on the promise that such a bill would quickly be added. With pressure mounting from across the new nation, the anti-Bill of Rights contingent finally had to give in. In 1791, Congress made the first change to the U.S. Constitution by ratifying 10 amendments-The Bill of Rights. The First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments were all largely borrowed from Mason's Virginia declaration, sometimes using his exact wording.
George Mason died on October 7, 1792 at his home in Virginia. His refusal to sign the Constitution makes him largely unknown to modern Americans, but his place as the "Father of the Bill of Rights" and one of the most important Founding Fathers is unquestioned.
In 2002 he was finally recognized by the nation he helped found when the George Mason National Memorial was formally dedicated near the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Information from Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader, "America's Forgotten Founding Father," Pg. 211-214.