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Selected Works of
R. Carter Pittman

Originally published in the
Autograph Collector’s Journal
Spring Convention Edition, 1953
Permission for use at this site generously granted
by the Manuscript Society.

George Mason of Gunston Hall
(1725 - 1792)

By R. Carter Pittman

THERE is nothing so rare as a truly great man. He never thinks himself one. If he should, he would lack an essential element of magnanimity. They do not leave diaries, memoirs, autobiographies or carefully worded inscriptions for their tombs. Like Samson, they baffle the world and pass on seeming to say: “Behold, I have not told it my father nor my mother, and shall I tell it thee?”

Such a one was the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights and Constitution of 1776, the father of the American Bill of Rights proposed in 1789 and adopted in 1791, and grandfather of every other Bill of Rights that has been adopted in the world since that day. That the world’s grand champion of human liberty and dignity should now be America’s most forgotten man, is as he would have it. Of all of the great master pieces of history that flowed from his pen, his only expression of pride of authorship is to be found in a letter addressed to his cousin and childhood playmate and bedfellow, then in England.(1) His reference to the Virginia Bill of Rights in that letter would not have been written had he ever dreamed it might be published, even as it was, 100 years after after his death.

Language has its limits. Some of the contemporaries of George Mason of Gunston Hall, (1725-1792) grasped for the outer limits as they strived to describe him. James Madison said of him:

George Mason possessed the greatest talents for debate of any man I have ever seen or heard speak.(2)

Patrick Henry pronounced him and one other “the greatest statesmen I ever knew.“(3)

The great historic characters of two worlds for a half century seemed to lay in panorama before the discriminating mind of Thomas Jefferson, as he stood on a pinnacle late in life. As George Washington crowded his memory, Jefferson took his measure:

His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order.(4)

As if by studied contrast, George Mason was,

one, most steadfast, able and zealous; who was himself a host. This was George Mason, a man of the first order of wisdom among those who acted on the theatre of the revolution, of expansive mind, profound judgment, cogent in argument, learned in the lore of our former constitution, and earnest for the republican change on democratic principles.(5)

Upon first conversing with George Mason, Philip Mazzei, the Florentine physician, world traveler, and close friend of Jefferson, saw in him one of the wonders of the world. Thirty-five years after the event he related in his Memoirs the impression made upon him by George Mason in 1773, when he had exclaimed to his friend, Thomas Adams:

His is one of those strong, very rare intellects, which are created only by a special effort of nature, like that of a Dante, a Machiavelli, a Galilee, a Newton . . . and so forth;(6)

In historic evalutations, as in religion, panegyric is vain and empty. Actions speak louder than words. Emulation rather than rhetorical evaluation by men of wisdom and virtue is the better test. By that rule let George Mason be judged.

Before the Revolution George Washington called upon Mason to draw every important state paper that ever bulged from his pockets. Mason’s Fairfax Resolves of July 1774, by way of Washington’s pockets, became the Virginia Resolves of August. By way of other pockets they became the Resolves of the Continental Congress on October 14th, and The Association of October 20, 1774. As to the latter, one of those rare historians, willing to follow facts wherever they lead and without respect to persons, said:

Much alike as many such papers of the time were, it is impossible to read these two together without being convinced that the committee which framed the Association at Philadelphia had a copy of the Fairfax instructions before them.(7)

George Mason went to Williamsburg in May, 1776 with something in his pocket that revolutionized a world. His Virginia Bill of Rights was to become the most influential constitutional document ever penned by man. Nothin in all the annals of history had ever approached its simple delineation of the inherent rights of men. In that document man stood forth in dignity and freedom as the natural master of his own government, and his own destiny. It separated the powers of government and struck the hand of executive and legislative powers from the courts of justice, so as to set them free, that there might be impartial justice under standing laws. For the first time in all history the press found its freedom elevated to constitutional status in a document that formed the basis and foundation of government. Scores of other fox holes of liberty were reconstructed by Mason’s fabulous mind from the bitter struggles of man to achieve liberty and dignity in all ages, and were framed into a governmental structure by his pen for the first time, thence to re-echo forever down the corridors of time.

As formally adopted on June 12, 1776, Mason’s Declaration of Rights was as follows:


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.


That all Power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the People; that Magistrates are their Trustees and Servants, and at all Times amenable to them.


That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common Benefit, Protection, and Security, of the People, Nation, or Community; of all the various Modes and Forms of Government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest Degree of Happiness and Safety, and is most effectually secured against the Danger of Maladministration; and that, whenever any Government shall be found inadequate or contrary to those Purposes, a Majority of the Community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible Right, to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such Manner as shall be judged conducive to the public weal.


That no Man, or Set of Men, are entitled to exclusive or separate Emoluments or Privileges from the Community, but in Consideration of public Services; which, not being descendible, neither ought the Offices of Magistrate, Legislator, or Judge, to be hereditary.


That the legislative and executive Powers of the State should be separate and distinct from the Judicative; and, that the Members of the two first may be restrained from Oppression, by feeling and participating the Burthens of the People, they should at fixed Periods, be reduced to a private Station, return into that Body from which they were originally taken, and the Vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular Elections, in which all, or any Part of the former Members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the Laws shall direct.


That Elections of Members to serve as Representatives of the People, in Assembly, ought to be free; and that all Men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common Interest with, and Attachment to, the Community, have the Right of Suffrage, and cannot be taxed or deprived of their Property for public uses without their own Consent or that of their Representatives so elected, nor bound by any Law to which they have not, in like Manner, assented, for the public Good.


That all Power of Suspending Laws, or the Execution of Laws, by any Authority without Consent of the Representatives of the People, is injurious to their Rights, and ought not to be exercised.


That in all capital or criminal Prosecutions a Man hath a Right to demand the Cause and Nature of his Accusation, to be confronted with the Accusers and Witnesses, to call for Evidence in his Favour, and to a speedy Trial by an impartial Jury of his Vicinage, without whose unanimous Consent he cannot be found guilty, nor can he be compelled to give Evidence against himself; that no Man be deprived of his Liberty except by the Law of the Land, or the Judgment of his Peers.


That excessive Bail ought not to be required, nor excessive Fines imposed; nor cruel and unusual Punishments inflicted.


That general Warrants, whereby any Officer or Messenger may be commanded to search suspected Places without evidence of a Fact committed, or to seize any Person or Persons not named, or whose Offense is not particularly described and supported by Evidence, are grievous and oppressive, and ought not to be granted.


That in Controversies respecting Property, and in Suits between Man and Man, the ancient Trial by Jury is preferable to any other, and ought to be held sacred.


That the Freedom of the Press is one of the greatest Bulwarks of Liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.


That a well regulated Militia, composed of the Body of the People, trained to Arms, is the proper, natural, and safe Defence of a free State; that standing Armies, in Time of Peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to Liberty; and that, in all Cases, the Military should be under strict Subordination to, and governed by, the civil Power.


That the People have a Right to uniform Government; and therefore, that no Government separate from, or independent of, the Government of Virginia, ought to erected or established within the Limits thereof.


That no free Government, or the Blessing of Liberty, can be preserved to any People but by a firm Adherence to Justice, Moderation, Temperance, Frugality, and Virtue, and by frequent Recurrence to fundamental Principles.


That Religion, or the Duty which we owe to our Creator and the Manner of discharging it, can be directed by Reason and Conviction, not by Force or Violence; and therefore, all Men are equally entitled to the free Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience; and that it is the mutual Duty of all to practice Christian Forbearance, Love, and Charity towards each other.

The original draft had been published in the Virginia Gazette of June 1, 1776. It was picked up and reprinted all over America and beyond the seas. Philadelphia newspapers carried it on June 6th, 8th and 12th. Jefferson was there, tediously writing and re-writing his Declaration of Independence. He had found it easy enough to catalogue the sins of George III and call him what he was. Indeed, Judge William Henry Drayton of Charleston, South Carolina, had already done that for him in his preamble to South Carolina’s provisional constitution of March 26th, 1776, and in his charge to a grand jury at Charleston on April 23rd 1776. Jefferson had a circular containing that charge in his right coat pocket, when making his first drafts.(7a)

But a declaration designed to electrify the world needed a powerful preamble justifying that awful step with an appeal to the hearts, the reason and sense of justice of all men. Jefferson eventually found the answer to his problem in the news from Virginia. His left coat pocket immediately became his library. “All men are born equally free“ became “All men are created equal.“ Man’s “unalienable right“ became “unalienable rights.“ “The enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety“ became the enjoyment of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.“ On Jefferson went, plating gold with sounding brass. He knew, of course, that all men are not “created equal.“ He knew also that without “the means of acquiring and possessing property“ there can be no “liberty“ and the “pursuit of happiness“ is a dry-run, but what of it? He was talking to the simple-minded peasants and philosophers of Europe, as well as Anglo-Saxons with centuries of political experience and the common sense lessons learned therefrom. A prime purpose of the Declaration was to enlist the aid of the French and other peoples whose chief characteristic, born of bondage, was that they could feel better than they could think.*

After Virginia’s clean break and after the Declaration of Independence, many colonies promptly assumed statehood and adopted Bills of Rights. One by one and two by two’s they too copied the Virginia Bill of Rights and Constitution as well. Benjamin Franklin was not as subtle as Jefferson. He made a few slight changes and a few additions and the Virginia Bill of Rights became the Pennsylvania Bill of Rights. If it was good enough for Pennsylvania it was good enough for Maryland and North Carolina. Vermont and Delaware thought so too. When John Adams came to write the Massachusetts Bill of Rights, the only thing he couldn’t swallow was George Mason’s freedom of religion. His grandson and biographer, Charles Francis Adams, says that his grandfather copied four paragraphs from Mason’s Virginia Bill of Rights.(8) He was eminently correct. If he had looked a little closer he could have found at least fifteen other provisions copied from the same paper. If it was good enough for Massachusetts, it was good enough for New Hampshire, except even New Hampshire rejected Adams’s religious feudalism and took Mason’s religious freedom.

France came next with its Declaration of Rights of 1789. It too recorded many maxims of the man of Gunston Hall. But it was too rich for the blood of a people habituated to slavery, and hence was swept away in 1792 by the French Revolution, to be restored 154 years later (in 1946).(9)

After trying out nearly every philosophy of government known to man and falling from grandeur to pathetic grief, let us hope that poor France may fight her way back with virtue and wisdom to keep and live by the maxims of the man of Gunston Hall.

When George Mason rode into Williamsburg in May 1776, with his Declaration of Rights and the outlines of his constitution, in his pocket, the strange enthusiasm of revolution inspired and supported the minds of men. Insurgent shocks sharpen mental faculties and moral responsibilities. Carter Braxton, Meriwether Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and others took or sent their drafts of constitutions to the rebel meeting, but as Edmund Randolph tersely commented in his Manuscript History of Virginia, they

discovered the ardor of political notice, rather than ripeness in political wisdom. That by George Mason swallowed up all the rest.

In all sanguinary struggles against despotism and the abuse of power, those oppressed by despotic governments are the underdogs. At the very threshold the leaders find themselves between cataclysms and catacombs. Anxiety for self-preservation, “the first law of nature,“ renders men attentive at such times to the wisest men in their counsils. Every ear listened to the wisest man of his generation. Every mind assented.

But the fruits of victory, bought with blood, tend to vanish in bachanalian feasts.

The struggle against power and for freedom had been water of the dam five years before the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The struggle for power over liberty was on. George Mason was not a man to put on and then shed his principles “like some shabby old coat at the door.“ The same libertarian rode into Philadelphia in May 1787 that rode into Williamsburg in May 1776. He was in the Convention every hour of every session. During recesses he was tugging at the coat tails of committeemen. To one of his children he wrote,

For my own part, I never felt myself in such a situation; and declare I would not, upon pecuniary motives, serve in this convention for a thousand pounds a day.

Others were only interested in the concentration of powers in a super government. Mason and a precious few were determined to preserve the integrity of the states and the liberty and dignity of men. He and that fast diminishing few slipped out of their roomslate of nights and held “secret meetings“ to devise means to stem the onrushing tide of power.(10)

Mason knew that necessary powers must be given, but he was unwilling to vest unnecessary and dangerous powers in a super government. He knew that the only price of increaded powers is decreased liberties. He knew that rulers are prone to oppress, and that the lust for power is never satisfied except when the Godess of Liberty is being ravished.

That which Mason could not accomplish to define and limit powers, by a frontal assault, he sought to achieve by flanking movements. Since the legislative makes, the executive executes and the judicial judges the law, he labored to define and limit the powers of the legislative, because to do so would ipso facto define and limit executive and judicial powers. Definition of legislative power is easier than the limitation of it. No limitation was ever inserted into the Constitution until the Convention was almost over. Before September 12, 1787, Mason was able to get the Committee of Style to insert the words “herein granted“ into Article I of the Constitution so that the Congress should be expressly limited to the powers defined in the Constitution. A jarring blow for freedom had been struck unnoticed. Mason laid low until his two precious words were passed over by the Committee of the Whole on the morning of September 12th.(11) With the Congress limited now for the first time he proposed his Bill of Rights on the afternoon of September 12th. Of what possible value would a Bill of Rights be, tacked on to a Constitution without limitation of powers?

Mason’s new proposal struck like lightning. Little minds were amazed. Power was now limited, so “why erect havens of retreat when none can pursue“? The Bill of Rights was voted down by the unanimous votes of the states as “unnecessary“ and with merciless ridicule. Only Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts supported him. Old George Mason’s againg mind became aflame. Back to his room in the “Indian Queen,“ where other proposals flowed from his pen, the effect of which would have been to insert his Bill of Rights into the Constitution piece-meal. The too were voted down unanimously. Madison later recorded that the old man was in a bad humor as the Convention came to a close. That was a gross understatement.

Jefferson was in France. Patrick Henry and R.H. Lee “smelt a rat“ and refused to go. Luther Martin gave up the battle as lost and went home. Old George Mason was there to the bitter end and went down swinging for you who read this and for me. They thought they had him and his Bill of Rights nailed securely to a cross.

Mason refused to sign the Constitution. The first six words of his “Objections“ to it were heard by the friendless and helpless on every frontier and in every hovel in America. The traditional victims of power passed those words along: “There is no declaration of rights“!

Washington and Madison would barely speak to him face to face. To his back what they said of him ill-became the men we know them to have been. From some mysterious source the word got around in Mason’s home county of Fairfax that he was losing his mind. James Wilson of Pennsylvania, James Iredell of North Carolina, James Madison of Virginia, Alexander Hamilton of New York, and many others demonstrated conclusively, to themselves at least, that a federal Bill of Rights was not only “unnecessary“ but downright “dangerous.“ Of course the old man was “crazy“ to seek to refute such incomparably specious jargon.

Back in Virginia, it is said that Mason was warned that if he valued his hide he had better stay out of Alexandria. “Fear“? That word was not in his vocabulary! He accepted the challenge—rode in alone and had the Sheriff proclaim that George Mason was there to make a speech. As he warmed to the subject of the rights of men against power a well coached heckler yelled: “The people of Fairfax know that Colonel Mason is losing his mind“! To this Mason replied: “If you lose yours no one will ever know it“! When he had finished his speech to his astounded audience he mounted his horse and rode back to Gunston Hall, the same George Mason that never picked a fight except one against tyranny and never ran from one of any description.

This traditional story may not be authentic. If true, it was not the first time George Mason lost the support of his neighbors to earn the respect of the world. The deep snows of 1770-71 almost left the lean hard ring of that winter in the trunk of freedom. Prior to that winter George Mason was more popular in Fairfax than George Washington.

It was during that winter and spring that Mason waged a one man crusade against big and little alike in Fairfax for the ruthless slaughtering of deer during the deep snows. He filed information on 18 leading citizens February 17, 1771 for the unlawful killing of 52 deer with dogs in his neighborhood, and promised further information later.(12) His letter told a poignant story:

There has been such shameful havock made of the deer during this snow, when the poor creatures could not get out of any dog’s way, that I hope the magistrate and gentlemen of the county will think it their duty to make an example of the offenders.

From that day forward George Mason walked a lonely political road in Fairfax, and barely escaped defeat for election as a delegate to the revolutionary convention of 1776. It was his unhappy lot in the world to seethe in the milk of his own human kindness. His great heart bled for “the poor creatures“ that “could not get out of the dog’s way,“ whether the “creature“ was man or beast, or the “dogs“ human or inhuman.

At any rate, the bitterness against him for seeking to retain the principles of the American Revolution was such in Fairfax that it remains the everlasting honor of Stafford County, Virginia, to have been the one to call him to the fray in the Virginia ratifying convention of 1788. Prince William and Fauquier Counties must also be honored. They too wanted the “crazy“ man from Fairfax to hold their banners in the impending battle for rights over wrongs.(13)

At Richmond, Patrick Henry was at his side and so was James Monroe, Benjamin Harrison, William Grayson and many other patriots. More importantly, the people on the farms and frontiers of Virginia demonstrated their distrust of an instrument of unguarded powers, and fell into line with Mason and Henry. Madison, Randolph, Marshall, Pendleton, Wythe, and Nicholas had more than they could handle in the oratory of Henry, the wisdom of Mason and the patriotic zeal of the adherents to the new “republican party“ of which Mason was the first elected head. Only the “black satchel“ of Robert Morris of Philadelphia could save the Constitution in Virginia, without “previous amendments.“ On June 12, 1788, Robert Morris wrote General Horatio Gates from Richmond boldy confessing “the depredations that have been made on my purse.“(14) “Previous amendments“ were voted down in favor of subsequent amendments“ by a small majority at a large price.

On a hill top of history, the statesmanship of George Mason and Patrick Henry was rendered futile by the dollarship of Robert Morris. Freedom’s lance was broken on an armor of gold. To salvage all possible of that freedom depredated as a result of “depredation“ of Morris’s purse, was their final aim. Henry and others held the battle lines and excused Mason from the hall while he prepared “subsequent amendments“ for proposal to the Congress. When the tainted verdict was rendered, the amendments prepared by Mason were quickly adopted for proposal to Congress.

Mason and Henry kept Madison out of the United States Senate, but failed to keep him out of the House of Representatives by reason of Madison’s profuse promises to the people to battle for a Bill of Rights in the first Congress. There he sponsored a watered down version of George Mason’s Bill of Rights in order to save the political future of James Madison—not to save the liberties of men.(15)

George Mason retired to Gunston Hall broken in health and spirit. A divine providence had sustained him with an undergirding arm in his final battle for the rights of men. In 1791 his Bill of Rights became the seal of a Constitution that should limit power as well as confer it. He lived barely long enough to thank the God he worshipped sincerely—then came death and oblivion.

One who loved him to the last and respected his wisdom and integrity above all men on earth was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson threw his weight on the scales in favor of Mason’s Bill of Rights, both by letters from France and by more direct methods after his return. Jefferson fanned flickering flames into conflagration. The dying Mason was no longer to be feared, but the living Jefferson was to be reckoned with. He sat by Mason’s death bed in 1792 and wrote down every halting, painful word the great Master struggled to utter as his life ebbed away. Jefferson seized the falling torch from the falling hands and kept it aglow.

The bill of rights and constitutions of every American state, the federal government and more than one half of the constitutions of the earth, this day, contain from one to many provisions that first flowed from the pen of George Mason. For example, the privilege against self-incrimination, which first attained the dignity of constitutional status by the pen of George Mason, is in the bills of rights or constitutions of every American state except Iowa and New Jersey, is in the Federal Bill of Rights and is in the fundamental instruments of government of many foreign nations.

George Mason does not rule the world from his grave at the edge of an old field near Gunston Hall, but from that grave he shields one-half of the “poor creatures“ of the earth from the lash of tyrants, the boot, the thumb-screw, and all the instruments of torture to be found in the museums of man’s depravity.

He broke the lions of power to bit and harness and put the people in the drivers seats. His hand yet holds a death grip on the heavy hands of power.

The American people are more indebted to George Mason for the liberties they now enjoy than to any other mortal man living or dead. Not since Christ has any one man done more for the masses of men. Those who ride to power, and in power, rough shod over the rights of men seem always to stand in marble on our public squares, while those who carry the torch of freedom are soon forgotten—perhaps to be re-discovered centuries later.

* For a thorough examination of Mr. Jefferson’s reliance on George Mason and William Henry Drayton, see The Declaration of Independence: Its Antecedents and Authors, written in follow-up to this essay. (-Ed.)



1. Rowland, Life of George Mason, Vol. I, p. 237.

2. Kennedy, Life of William Wirt, Vol. I, p. 352.

3. Rowland, Vol. II, 373.

4. Jefferson to Jones, Jan. 2, 1814. Basic Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Philip S. Foner, ed.) (1944) p. 721.

5. Jefferson’s Autobiography (1821) Ibid, p. 433.

6. Marraro, Memoirs of Philip Mazzei 1730-1816, (N.Y. 1942) p. 205.

7. Willis Mason West, Source Book of American History, (1931) p. 416.

7a. Gibbes, Documentary History of the American Revolution, Vol. I, p. 273-292; A.L. Arthur Middleton to Drayton from Philadelphia, July 10, 1776. Owned by Dr. Joseph E. Fields, Joliet, Ill.

8. Works of John Adams, Vol. 4, p. 220

9. Peaslee, Constitution of Nations, (1950), Vol. II, p. 21.

10. But for the fact that Oliver Ellsworth was anxious to trade continued slavery in the south for the monopoly of trading in those slaves by the north, and became a “peeping Tom“ to shadow this little band of patriots that wanted to end human slavery, those secret meetings would never have been known. Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, Vol. III, 271, 282.

Luther Martin accurately described the victorious Ellsworth as one with “a heart which would dishonor the midnight assassin.“ Ibid, p. 284. More than 100 years later Theodore Roosevelt took the part of the “high-minded“ George Mason, who battled against human slavery and unerringly predicted a civil war, if it should continue. Roosevelt lauded Mason “in shameful contrast“ with “many of the northerners; . . . in particular, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, whose name should be branded with infamy because of the words he then uttered“ there in defense of slavery. Roosevelt, Governeur Morris (Vol. VIII of American Statesmen), p. 138.

11. Farrand, Vol. IV, 56-57; Vol. II, 590.

12. Mason to Alexander Henderson (Justice of the Peace) A.L.S. Feb. 17, 1771. Huntington Library.

13. Sparks, Writings of Washington, Vol. IX, p. 313.

14. A.L.S. New York Public Library.

15. NOTE: Madison’s pitiful efforts in Congress to rephrase George Mason’s proposals were usually rejected in the committee of the whole, and Mason’s phraseology substantially restored. One of Mason’s proposals, rejected by Congress, was recently adopted as the 22nd Amendment—to forestall a shoe-clerk dynasty. More than half of the 22 amendments to our Constitution were originally penned by the hand of George Mason.


Prepared from a typewritten draft with the author’s
handwritten changes incorporated. Edited by Joel T. LeFevre.