Selected Works of
R. Carter Pittman
George Mason: Architect of Constitutional Liberty and author of the Virginia Bill of Rights,
published in 1969 by Education Information, Inc. Mr. Pittman assisted in preparing
material for the booklet, in which this essay was included with his permission.
Provided for this project through the courtesy of Gunston Hall.
By R. Carter Pittman
EORGE MASON was born in 1725 on a neck of land jutting out into the Potomac River known as Dogue's Neck, named after the tribe of Dogue Indians that occupied that neck of land when Mason's ancestors settled there in the 1650s. On the south was the Potomac; on the west the Occoquon River; on the east Pohick Creek and Bay and on the north a narrowed neck, making a secluded peninsula principality.
Although his forefathers are listed in the literature of early Virginia as citizens of Northumberland, Westmoreland, Stafford and Fairfax Counties, he, his father and grandfather all lived on Dogue's Neck for nearly 150 years. At different times, it was a part of those four counties.
Mason became a member of the Ohio Company in 1749 and was made its treasurer in 1750 and later its virtual controller. The Ohio Company established and supplied Indian trading posts west of the Alleghenies and attempted to settle and reduce to occupancy the western part of Virginia within the bounds fixed by her Royal Charter. The Ohio Company project contributed much to the extension of British and subsequently American control of the West. It was in connection with the business of the Ohio Company that Washington became a fighting man and Mason a student of England's Constitution and Virginia's colonial charters. Mason was not a lawyer but after intensive tutoring by Scotch Presbyterians and others, he became a self-instructed constitutionalist and a learned expert in the science of government and politics. More great constitutional documents were produced by his pen than by that of any other one person in all recorded history. Usually providence fits times to the man, but in his case providence fit the man to the times. The times were those of transition from dependence on England to independence and self government. A people that had broken its old fences had to erect new fences. The choice was between a government of laws and a government of flesh.
Mason was the neighbor and Mentor of George Washington from Washington's early manhood. When Washington became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, he called on Mason to write for him every state paper, every resolution and every proposed bill that Washington was ever known to sponsor in Williamsburg. Washington was constantly within the perimeter of Mason's influence as a neighbor, as an advisor, as a co-member of the vestry at Pohick Church and as a co-member of the Fairfax County Court and the pre-revolutionary Fairfax County Committees.
Among the documents written for Washington by Mason, some of which may yet be found, in Mason's handwriting, among the Papers of Washington in the Library of Congress are a "Scheme for Replevying Goods Under Distress for Rent," written in December 1765; an "Address of the House of Burgesses to Gov. Fauquier," written in 1765; the "Association," or Nonimportation Resolutions, which Washington pulled from his pocket at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg in 1769 and which was adopted and signed with slight changes by members of the House of Burgesses after it was prorogued by the royal governor. Among those who sanctioned and signed Mason's document were Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, R. H. Lee and many other intellectual giants who served in the House of Burgesses at that time.
Mason wrote the celebrated Fairfax County Resolves which were unanimously adopted in July 1774 at a meeting in Alexandria of which George Washington was Chairman. These famous resolves became the Virginia Resolves of August 1774, by way of Washington's pocket, and the vastly influential Resolves of the Continental Congress by way of other pockets, in October of the same year.
In January of 1775 he wrote another Fairfax County Resolve which was adopted at a meeting of which Washington was again chairman. The resolves were widely published and the maxims set forth in them became bywords and revolutionary slogans of the colonists. Shortly thereafter Mason prepared a martial charter for the Fairfax Independent Company, of which Washington was placed in command. At Washington's request Mason prepared the Potomac River Bill in 1775. It was designed to connect the Potomac with the headwaters of the Ohio River and join the West to eastern commerce, which finally culminated in the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. It was originally introduced in both Maryland and Virginia and was Washington's favorite project both before and after the Revolution. Other documents, too numerous to detail here, were drawn by Mason and handed to Washington for his use.
Unlike some other Virginians of his day, Washington left many of the Mason documents among his papers and in Mason's handwriting, revealing who wrote them.
When Washington was put in command of the continental armies in 1775, Mason took his place in the Virginia Assembly. He wrote the committee draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which, after minor changes, was officially adopted on June 12, 1776. Jefferson used parts of it to make a preamble for the Declaration of Independence. Mason's original draft stands with Magna Charta and the English Bill of Rights of 1669 as one of the three most influential documents in the history of Anglo Saxon liberty. Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of confrontation, freedom from self-incrimination, freedom from trial on summary accusations without the intervention of a grand jury, and freedom from summary searches without safeguards are a few of our cherished freedoms that first attained constitutional status by the pen of George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Mason's early draft of Virginia's celebrated Declaration of Rights became the model for those of all other states, the French Declaration of 1789 and the Federal Bill of Rights adopted on December 15, 1791.
Immediately after preparing the Virginia Declaration as "the basis and foundation" of free government in Virginia, Mason prepared the outlines of Virginia's Constitution which was adopted July 5, 1776. His Virginia Constitution has influenced all other republican constitutions written since, anywhere in the world.
Throughout the Revolution, Mason was in contact with Washington and was induced by Washington and his friends in Fairfax to serve several terms in the Virginia Assembly. At more than one session of Virginia's revolutionary assembly, Mason was the principal author of the major portion of the bills enacted into law. Many of them became foundation stones of American jurisprudence.
When it became apparent that the federation of states under the Articles of Confederation was too loosely knit to serve the exigencies and purposes of the disunited states in the confederacy, ways and means were considered for resolving differences between the states so as to knit them more closely together as "united states" for the common good and general welfare.
Virginia and Maryland appointed delegates to a convention to meet at Alexandria in 1785 to discuss vexing questions of common interest largely with regard to navigation of the Potomac. This meeting was intimately related to the objectives of the old "Potomac River Bill." At that time "to ship" meant "to send by ship" and "commerce" was simply "navigation."
The Virginia Assembly named George Mason as a delegate. Mason owned plantations on both sides of the Potomac and was an extensive shipper who knew the problems to be solved, first hand. After meeting in Alexandria the delegates adjourned to Mt. Vernon where the convention continued its deliberations under the hospitable roof of George Washington who was intensely interested in the project. The findings, agreements, resolutions and recommendations of the Mt. Vernon Convention were composed, principally, and put into writing by George Mason. One item of agreement related to the boundary between Maryland and Virginia. It was the forerunner of the Annapolis Convention of 1786 and the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.
Mason was named to the Annapolis Convention but was unable to attend. He attended the Philadelphia Convention and was perhaps its most influential member until the last days of August 1787 when the delegates from the New England states traded with South Carolina and Georgia delegates to authorize the passage of navigation, or interstate commerce, laws by a simple majority of the Congress, as desired in New England, instead of a two-thirds majority, in return for continued and undisturbed traffic in human slavery for at least twenty years after the adoption of the Constitution, as insisted on by South Carolina and Georgia.
Mason lost his standing in Philadelphia as a result of that meretricious bargain. His brilliant mind became aflame. He refused to sign the Constitution precisely because it sanctioned human slavery, which he had publicly opposed all of his life, because it consolidated dangerous powers in the central government and above all, because it contained no Bill of Rights. In his room at the Indian Queen he wrote his Objections to the Constitution on the back of his last printed draft. The first six words were soon to be heard in every hovel and on every frontier of America: "There is no Declaration of Rights!"
It has recently come to light that Mason spent several days in Philadelphia after the Convention adjourned, working with a minority of the Pennsylvania Assembly in preparation for the historical battle for a Bill of Rights. Washington was sorely displeased over Mason's opposition and was never fully appeased. Mason was injured in an "accident" on his return home and was disgracefully abused by the merchants of Alexandria.
The original of George Washington's famous letter to James Madison of October 10, 1787, recently uncovered in New England, differs materially from Washington's Letter Book copy, which is the only one that has been printed. That letter, with the Notes of Jasper Yeates recently uncovered and not yet printed, when considered with well known facts, proves conclusively that Mason's Objections and his original draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights constituted the basis for the proposals of the Pennsylvania minority for a Bill of Rights, in December 1787. A minority at the Maryland Convention adopted subsequently the same proposals. A majority in the Massachusetts Convention also copied much from Mason.
Mason wrote the proposed Bill of Rights and proposed Constitutional Amendments adopted for proposal to the First Congress by the Virginia Convention. Mason was circulating the Virginia proposals two weeks before a committee was appointed by the Convention to prepare such proposals. Only recently a copy of such proposals, sent to New York by Mason on June 9, 1788, was found among the John Lamb Papers in the New York Historical Society. The Virginia proposals were verbatim copies of Mason's in nearly every clause. Mason, when later named to the Bill of Rights committee, pulled that historic document from his pocket in Richmond in 1788, as he did the Virginia Declaration of Rights in Williamsburg in 1776.
When the Committee, of which Madison was chairman, was appointed in the First Congress in 1789 to prepare a Bill of Rights in conformance with the proposals from the several states and the universal demands of the people, those finally agreed upon were substantially all extracted from Mason's original proposals and many of them in the exact language of Mason's original draft of Virginia's Declaration of Rights of 1776.
By a cruel irony it was principally Mason's bitter battle for a Bill of Rights that lost to him a deserved place at the pinnacle of American history. History's grand champion of the liberty and dignity of men was partially victorious over the proponents of dangerous federal powers but in victory he forfeited the plaudits of a fickle world. His open anti-slavery pronouncements made him unpopular in his age also. Like a great mountain, he may be appreciated only in a long view.
Thomas Jefferson is often said to be the founder of the Democratic Party. It was actually founded in secret meetings attended by Mason, Elbridge Gerry, Luther Martin and others during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The purpose of their secret meetings was to devise ways and means to preserve the sovereignty of the states and the rights of men. George Mason continued the same fight in the Virginia Ratifying Convention that was lost in Philadelphia. Patrick Henry and James Monroe were among his lieutenants there. On June 9, 1788, Patrick Henry wrote from the Richmond Convention to General John Lamb in New York:
Col. George Mason has agreed to act as chairman of our republican society. His character I need not describe. He is every way fit . . .
Jefferson was in France in 1787 and 1788. He was not the founder but the beneficiary of the "republican society" founded by Mason and others. Jefferson was elected to the presidency as a "republican" proponent of the principles of Mason's "republican society".
It was Mason who crystalized in our constitutional parchments the great principle that liberty is the gift of God -- not government -- and that the purpose of government is to protect that liberty -- not to destroy it. He knew, as Lord Acton later asserted, that "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The principle of separation, or subdivision, of powers spelled out in Mason's Virginia Constitution is still history's most effective stumbling block for tyrants.
Mason was a modest and retiring man. Virginia elected him a delegate to the Continental Congress during the Revolution but he would not leave his nine little orphaned children. Virginia's Governor was seen to cry publicly when Mason was forced to state the reasons for his refusal to serve. He was elected as one of Virginia's United States Senators under the new Constitution and again declined.
James Madison described Mason as having "the greatest talents for debate of any man I have ever seen or heard speak." Patrick Henry called him "the greatest statesman I ever knew." Jefferson regarded him "the wisest man of his generation." John Esten Cooke referred to him as "one of the most remarkable men . . . of all countries and all times." Dr. Phillip Mazzei, the Italian philosopher and friend of Jefferson, said of him: "His is one of those strong, very rare intellects, which are created only by a special effort of nature," and yet withal, America's greatest statesman is still her most forgotten man.
The federal Bill of Rights was proposed by Congress for adoption by the states in 1789. Mason was pleased but not appeased. To Samuel Griffin he wrote on September 8, 1789:
"I have received much satisfaction from the (proposed) amendments. . . . With two or three further amendments, such as confining the federal judiciary to Admiralty and Maritime Jurisdiction, and to subjects merely federal, fixing the mode of elections either in the Constitution (which I think would be preferable) or securing the regulation of them to the respective states, requiring more than a bare majority to make navigation and commercial laws, and appointing a constitutional amenable council to the president, and lodging with them most of the executive powers now vested in the Senate, I could cheerfully put my hand and heart to the new government."
Thus was summarized, in a few words, defects in the Constitution that have caused America's most tragic national controversies for 175 years. He pointed his finger unerringly at the very subjects of bitter controversy in the 1960s, and stated their cure. He saw beyond the hour to the ages.
Early in October 1792 George Mason was buried at the edge of an old field near Gunston Hall a few 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 because his heart had been there anyway for nineteen years.
After his will was probated the newspapers picked up and published a paragraph from it. It had been written in 1773 a few days after the death of Ann and a year before the fighting began at Lexington. That item is a testament that epitomized his life and 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 vexation 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."
Mason had no Boswell, named no disciples and wrote no autobiography. Abnegation of self was a cardinal tenet of his creed. His distinctive handwriting is often the sole proof of his authorship of many masterpieces in American constitutional history.
When and if all of his known Writings are ever authoritatively published and evaluated it is not unlikely that at some remote time the American people may reappraise their heroes and institutions and agree with Mason's contemporaries, that "his intellect was created only by a special effort of nature!"
From the Notes of Marian Buckley Cox
George Mason was a man of fine tradition, a devoted husband, and yet finding time to study and learn the history of the past and apply it to the future.
He demonstrated that one can be influential, successful, and dynamic and at the same time, humble.
He was a gentleman (in the finest sense of the word): wise, courteous, of keen and alert mind, a master of repartee and a terrifying adversary.
Mason was a political philosopher, not a politician, and he needed time and quiet in which to formulate his wise decisions. His opinions were the result of deep study and an amazing familiarity with wisdom drawn from the past.
Such a man naturally would shrink from the limelight. He seems to have preferred that others put his suggestions into operation. We may imagine him entertaining, at Gunston Hall, the great men of his day, and saying -- to Thomas Jefferson, to Richard Henry Lee, to James Madison, or to Patrick Henry -- : "You say this. . . ." or "You try to persuade the gentlemen that. . . ." It would not have mattered to him, as it does to us, that his name was not always quoted. His concern was for the America of the future.