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R. Carter Pittman

A printed edition of this speech appeared in
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XXI, No. 5, December 15, 1954.

George Mason
The Architect of American Liberty

By R. Carter Pittman

Address delivered at the fall meeting of the
Georgia Society of the Sons of Colonial Wars
Savannah, Georgia, November 17, 1954.

O N WEDNESDAY, June 23, 1779, the flagship Sensible, a French frigate of 36 guns, under Captain Chavagnes, was at half sail on a choppy sea six days out, enroute from France to America. To starboard and to larboard were the Bonhomme Richard of 42 guns, under Captain John Paul Jones, and the Alliance, under Captain Landais. In the convoy were three other able ships of the line, well gunned. To complete the convoy were two ill-constructed and aggravating tubs whose sails seemed to ship more water than wind. Five knots in a fair wind was about all they could do. Trailing the convoy since the preceding Saturday were from two to six English privateers yawning for, yet fearing, the chance to close in for the kill. A few shots across their bows discouraged cordiality. On Tuesday night they had peeled off to be seen no more.

Aboard the Sensible was a French Commission deputed to a fledgling nation in the throes of the birth of freedom under the laws of God and man. Aboard also was John Adams and his 12 year old son, John Quincy. The cargoes of human flesh and sinews of war were the answer of France to the subtle yet fervent plea of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman had pieced together the Declaration of Independence from the products of American minds and the sentiments of the day and had deposited it in the laps of the Gods as a hopeful prayer for aid in the American struggle for life over death.

Something about the sea, the mission, and the great part John Adams had played and was yet playing, lifted him out of himself. At no hour of life had he felt so near the ideal of independence towards which American patriots had staggered so long, to find always beyond reach. The danger of capture at sea was now past. Something less than relaxed conversation would have been out of place. Something less than sincerity would have been a travesty on the Sensible that day.

M. Marbois, Secretary of the French Commission, fell into easy conversation with Adams on deck during the afternoon of that Wednesday. In that conversation John Adams told a few secrets that the world has either overlooked or ignored. After the evening meal, the second future President of the United States put John Quincy, the sixth future President, to bed in his hammock and then retired to his nearby cabin. The conversation of the afternoon was rebounding in his mind. Soliloquy tortured him. "Philadelphia" haunted him, and drove sleep westward many knots. As the Sensible seemed to slumber, John Adams recorded in his diary some of his conversation with Marbois. Here is a part:

"All religions are tolerated in America," said M. Marbois; "and the ambassadors have in all courts a right to a chapel in their own way; but Mr. Franklin never had any." "No," said I laughing, "because Mr. Franklin had no" I was going to say what I did not say, and will not say here. I stopped short, and laughed. "No," said M. Marbois; "Mr. Franklin adores only great Nature, which has interested a great many people of both sexes in his favor."

"Yes," said I, laughing, "all the atheists, deists and libertines, as well as the philosophers and ladies, are in his train, another Voltaire, and thence--" "Yes," said Mr. Marbois, "he is celebrated as the great philosopher and the great legislator of America." "He is," said I, "a great philosopher, but as a legislator of America he has done very little. It is universally believed in France, England, and all Europe, that his electric wand has accomplished all this revolution. But nothing is more groundless. He has done very little. 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 is taken almost verbatim from that of Virginia which was made and published two or three months before that of Philadelphia was begun; it was made by Mr. Mason, . . ."

That of "Philadelphia" (meaning Pennsylvania) "was begun" in late August, 1776. The original draft of "that of Virginia made by Mr. Mason" reached Richard Henry Lee in Philadelphia, in the handwriting of Mason, in late May, 1776. It appeared in the June 1st issue of the Virginia Gazette which reached Philadelphia four days later. On June 6th, it reappeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post. On the 12th it reappeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The first paragraph was:

That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they cannot, by any Compact, deprive, or divest their Posterity; among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursuing and Obtaining Happiness and Safety.(1)

Franklin, though a philosopher, was unwilling to deface those lines that firmed for the ages the profound wisdom of the Cato of his country. He copied Mason's words "almost verbatim" into the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights, as follows:(2)

That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Adams could not remember the first name, "George," so he let it go as "Mr. Mason." Seventy five years later Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy and grandson of John, could remember neither the first nor the last name. Nevertheless he recorded in the Works of John Adams, Vol. 4, page 220, et seq., that his grandfather had no sooner disembarked from the Sensible to embrace his wife, grandmother of Charles Francis, than he was called away to write the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. The grandson disclosed that in August 1779 his grandfather did exactly what Benjamin Franklin did in August, 1776. He too copied "almost verbatim" from the Virginia Declaration of Rights. As prepared by John Adams the first paragraph of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights was as follows:(3)

All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting their property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

It was in the month of June, 1776 that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were in Philadelphia struggling to compose the Declaration of Independence. It was easy enough to catalogue the sins of George III and call him what he was. That had been done by many others many times. The South Carolina Constitution of March 1776 and Judge William Henry Drayton's charge to a grand jury at Charleston, S. C, in April 1776, were certainly used as models. But their combined wisdom was not equal to the task of framing a powerful preamble justifying revolution with an appeal to the hearts, the reason and the sense of justice of all men. Nothing like that had ever been penned by man. Finally they saw the manuscript in the hands of Richard Henry Lee and later saw it in newspapers. Eureka.! Eureka! Eureka! "Where did Mason get it?" No one knew. Richard Henry Lee knew the man of Gunston Hall better than any other in Philadelphia so he was appealed to. Here is the answer reported by Jefferson in a letter to Madison near a half century later:

Richard Henry Lee charged it as copied from Locke's treatise on government.(4)

That was just one other time when Richard guessed wrong. George Mason was a prophet. Like Ezekiel, he had learned the gift of prophecy from the "roll of a book," multiplied thousands of times. In his ample library at Gunston Hall he had filtered five thousand years of history. The principles of the Virginia Declaration of Rights were the distilled essence of history's bitter fruits gathered from her Gardens of Gethsemene.

Revealing as the John Adams Diary was, it did not tell all. It did not concede that the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence was but a slight variant of the first three paragraphs of Mason's Declaration of Rights. The variance substituted the specious doctrine of equality of birth for the common sense doctrine of equality of freedom and independence. It also substituted a fruitless "pursuit of happiness" for the ownership of property and attainment of happiness. The "pursuit of happiness" is but vain drudgery if it is not to be obtained. Happiness and safety may not be obtained in this world without "the means of acquiring and possessing property."

Franklin and Adams consented to deface Mason's words in their appeal to France in the Declaration of Independence, but they were unwilling to deface them as a rule of life for Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. The Declaration of Independence was written as an appeal to the simple-minded peasants and philosophers of France. Those who prepared it knew that it would never breathe the first breath as living law in America and it never has. The Mason concept became living law in every American constitution and is now in every world constitution except those of Russia, Mongolia, Ukraine and Guatemala. Disillusioned France struck the doctrine of unbounded equality from her motto in 1940 and from her Declaration of Rights in 1946. Equality beyond the range of legal rights cannot thrive in free soil. It thrives only in the sewers of Slavic slavery.

Alexander Hamilton expressed the idea well on the floor of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on June 26, 1787: "Inequality will exist as long as liberty exists. It unavoidably results from that very liberty itself." Equality beyond the range of legal rights is despotic restraint. Liberty wears no chains. Equality homogenizes so that cream no longer rises to the top. It puts the eagle in the henhouse that he may no longer soar.

Who was the "legislator of America"? His name was "Mr. Mason" aboard the Sensible in 1779. John Adams seemed never able to remember even that much of his name again. The biographers of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson have likewise suffered equal lapse of memory.

George Mason was a delegate to the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. He refused to sign a proposed Constitution that sanctioned human slavery and omitted the rights of men. The first six words of his Objections were heard in every hovel and on every frontier of America: "There is no Declaration of Rights!" He carried his deathless struggle for a Federal Bill of Rights to the people, and lived barely long enough to see his efforts crowned with victory and his name drowned in oblivion, because of the bitterness engendered in that struggle.

Something about the man and his story sounds like a play back of a few tragic scenes along the road to the Cross, and to Tower Hill. Liberty must have her martyrs in every age. It is blood drained from their veins and abuse heaped upon them that neutralizes arbitrary power in governments and reasserts man's natural right to be let alone. Martyrs to human liberty and dignity are those who think in terms of ages gone and to come -- ancestry and posterity. Mason thought of the ages while others thought of the hour.

The best minds among the proponents of the constitution tried in vain to answer Mason's Objections under a variety of pseudonyms. One of the efforts appear in the Virginia Independent Chronicle of January 30, 1788, over the pseudonym, "Civis Rusticus." This article seems to have never been reprinted or noted elsewhere. It contains one of the most remarkable tributes by one adversary to another to be found in all literature.

"Civis Rusticus" opened his attempted reply to Mason with an apology, and, as he put it.

with that deference, which is due to this respectable and worthy gentleman; to whose great and eminent talents, profound judgment and strength of mind, no man gives a larger credit than he who presumes to criticise his objections, . . .

After attempting to answer each of Mason's Objections categorically he then said:

I have now finished what I proposed to observe on these objections, and trust no person will conclude my design has been to condemn this respectable gentleman for not putting his signature to the Constitution. On the contrary, thinking as he did, I commend him. The man of abilities, firmness and integrity will dare to think, to judge and act for himself. His principles have not the pliancy of his gloves, neither has he his mind to make up at every revolution. An hours authority with him is not the guide to truth, nor does infallibility rest in numbers. He has a surer monitor: his own judgment and the dictates of his conscience. Of such stern matter is the mind of Mr. Mason composed, if I am rightly informed, that it is never yielding itself up, when convinced of its rectitude, at the arbitrium of the popular breath, nor giving in to opinions that are not its own.

That picture, drawn in the heat of bitter controversy by an unknown adversary, aids us to understand why Jefferson regarded Mason the wisest man of his generation; why Madison described him the greatest debater he had ever heard speak, and why Patrick Henry named him the greatest statesman he had ever known.

At the Virginia ratifying convention of 1788 in Richmond, Mason prepared proposed amendments that were sent to New York and which formed the basis of the Amendments proposed by the New York ratifying convention. He prepared those proposed by the Virginia Convention. Practically all of those proposed by North Carolina originally flowed from the pen of Mason. The Amendments proposed by the Committee in the first Congress were taken almost seriatem from those originally drawn by Mason and transmitted from the Virginia ratifying convention. Thus it was that the first ten amendments to the Federal Constitution, that we cherish as our Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791, was a monumental attempt to satisfy with Mason's own proposed amendments some of Mason's Objections to the Constitution. The llth and the 22nd Amendments were belated attempts to satisfy other Mason Objections that time had proved to be otherwise unanswerable. The ill fated Bricker amendment, defeated in the last Congress, was a proposed answer to another of Mason's Objections to the Constitution. Others remain to be answered in ages to come.

As we have said, the Declaration of Independence never breathed its first breath as living law, while the Bill of Rights lives and shields our helpless people from tyrannical government every hour of every day. Since the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence is celebrated annually it was thought not to be improper to celebrate the anniversary of the Bill of Rights if done once in 150 years. December 15, 1941 was the 150th anniversary of the federal Bill of Rights. A committee was formed to celebrate the occasion headed by Herbert Bayard Swope as National Chairman. Franklin D. Roosevelt was honorary chairman and it seemed that every living man who had ever been president or who had ever run for president or who had ever aspired to be president was named as honorary vice-chairman. Down below in small print the National Committee was crowded in. It was an imposing list of people with awesome titles and chronic publicity seekers. This committee published a book entitled Our Bill of Rights, What It Means To Me. It consists of short essays by so-called "leaders of thought" at that time. As one might expect, the chairman led off with the essay that set the pattern. In it he said:

"Jefferson, shocked by the omissions in the Constitution, as promulgated in 1789, while he was United States Minister to France . . . drafted the additions to our great charter. Thus we were given the four freedoms . . ." etc.

With all due deference to Mr. Swope, Jefferson drafted no provision of our Bill of Rights or the Constitution to which it was added. In fact 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 liked the one Mason wrote for them too well. The only connection Jefferson ever had with our Bill of Rights was that he favored it from afar. Why Swope and many other Americans should believe that Jefferson was the author of or had the inspiration for our Bill of Rights is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the new world.

Swope was not the only leader of thought to skin his ignorance on the Bill of Rights. Many of the 59 contributors to that book skinned their ignorance in the same place. Justice Felix Frankfurter paid his usual lip service to liberty and conceived that the Bill of Rights and Constitution are just convenient vehicles in which the people may ride helter skelter, and with reckless abandon in a wild "pursuit of happiness" as the one real "inalienable rignt" in America. He didn't reveal the obvious truth that happiness may be pursued in prisons or in chains or in the mines of Siberia with even more zeal than in freedom. The liberty to pursue happiness is enjoyed by slaves. It is nothing. Liberty to obtain happiness is everything. Happiness may be pursued in Russia but it is not obtainable there. 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. The difference between pursuing happiness and obtaining it is the difference between the fantastic philosophy of alien doctrinaires and the intelligent realism of Mason.

The late famous journalist William Allen White said his piece in that book. He tells us that "the liberties that are guaranteed to the American people by the Bill of Rights . . . came straight out of the impulse of the Declaration of Independence. . . ."

Mirabile dictu!

George Mason's pen was the first in all history to elevate freedom of speech and of the press to the dignity of constitutional status, yet Mr. White knew him not.

Those of you the least acquainted with the truths of American history and who have a strange sense of humor will enjoy reading The Bill of Rights, What It Means To Me, by the "leaders of thought" in America.

Mason's contribution to liberty under law in the solid framework of the federal Constitution and Bill of Rights and in those of the American states and many nations of the world is a story too long to tell here. He was not only the "legislator of America," but my be justly called the legislator of the non-communist world. He is history's grand champion of the guarded liberty and dignity of men against ever encroaching governments, and is also her mos forgotten man. As a libertarian he stood at the opposite pole from so called "liberals" of our day.

In October, 1792 George Mason was buried at the edge of an old field near Gunston Hall 13 miles down stream from Mt. Vernon. His body was placed as close to the side of Ann, the wife of his youth and mother of his children, as her tomb would permit. He wanted it that way. Her tomb thus became his own. For 19 years his hear had been there anyway.

On the following day the five sons and four daughters gathered in the library of Gunston Hall for the reading of his solemn will. It had been written in 1773, just after the death of Ann and before the Revolution had begun. One paragraph of that will mirrored the man:

I recommend it to my sons from my own experience in life, to prefer the happiness of independence and a private station to the troubles and vexations of publick business, but if either their own inclinations or the necessity of the times should engage them in public affairs, I charge them on a father's blessing never to let the motives of private interest or ambition induce them to betray, nor the terrors of poverty and disgrace, or the fear of danger or of death, deter them from asserting the liberty of their country and endeavoring to transmit to their posterity those sacred rights to which themselves were born.

Abnegation of self is not a creed. It is not a philosophy. It is a way of life. Narrow is its way and strait is its gate. Those who travel that way find few vistas through which to look down for a glimpse of mundane glory. Their vistas lie straight ahead and up. Straight ahead, is in any and all directions unless the course is set by that from whence we came. The first is the way of philosophy. The latter is the way of experience. That is the chief reason why no frame of government has ever survived whose architect was a philosopher. The light of experience is never shed upon Utopias. Such are not in the vistas of the martyrs to human liberty and dignity. The crowns they wear are of thorns. The garlands they bear are crosses. They don't stand in marble on public squares. Had it been tinseled garlands they sought, they would not have travelled the narrow way and entered the strait gate.

*The introduction to Glimpse of Glory by Marian Buckley Cox, published on the 10th of this month by Garrett & Massie, Inc., Richmond, Virginia, contains a part of this talk. Glimpse of Glory tells a story about the home life of the Masons at Gunston Hall. Royalties from the sale of the book are to be used for the benefit of Gunston Hall by the National Society of Colonial Dames from whose membership the Regents of Gunston Hall are selected. Mrs. Cox is a member of the Society and the New York representative on the Board of Regents.



1. As revised by the Convention the first paragraph was:

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.

2. Thorpe, American Charters and Constitutions, Vol. 5, page 3082.

3. The Works of John Adams, Vol. 4, page 220. The Convention changed the first line to read: "All men are born free and equal," thus substituting the specious doctrine of equality of men for the original Mason concept of equality of freedom and independence.

4. The Writings of Jefferson, Ford Ed. Vol. VII, p. 304.