Better Know a Founder – George Mason, Father of the Bill of Rights


March 21, 2009 by D Stack

I’m both a political junkie and a history geek. I especially like the early history of the United States – the French and Indian War (aka Seven Years War), the American Revolution, the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the people around all those events. I’m still a little winded from some heavy posts so I figured I’d keep things a little light. Though I will be returning to deeper posts – looking at my hit counter for example, I’m very gratified by the people who viewed my post about Excommunications in Brazil – it was something I felt passionate about.

So who the heck was George Mason? Most people know him for the university named after him, George Mason University.. You might remember George Mason University’s run in the 2006 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament – they were an 11th seeded team which went on to make it to the Final Four, beating Michigan State (6-seed), North Carolina (3-seed), Witchita State (7-seed), and UConn (1-seed). Pretty much everyone in America was rooting for them, unless you were a fan of one of those schools. Like this poor blogger, University of Connecticut class of 1994, Computer Science & Engineering. That had the potential to make Mason my least favorite Founding Father. But he did such awesome things that I’m forced to admire him. So with the NCAA Tournament underway right now, I knew he’d be the first Founder I’d write about.

George Mason was born in Virgina in 1725. Mason was a self-educated man, his main source of learning being his uncle’s library. He was a neighbor (using the term loosely – we are talking plantation owners) of George Washington. He wasn’t a big fan of serving in public offices – his highest offices were a seat on the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1759 and a delegate in the United States Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Despite not being fond of pubic offices, he did much in the cause of American liberties. In May of 1776 Mason authored the first draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted with some modifications during Virginia’s Constitutional Convention. This was the first time in history that individual rights were declared inherent and protected constitutionally (as opposed to at the changeable whim of a monarch or representative body). It is a brief document and you’ll find it in its entirety later in this posting, but it enumerates rights and concepts which would later find their way into the United States Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights as well as the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The Virginia Declaration began with a statement declaring “[t]hat 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.” This concept and even much of its wording would be adopted by Thomas Jefferson in his writing of the Declaration of Independence. The Virgina Declaration also named civil liberties which have found their way into the Bill of Rights such as freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right to trial by jury.

Like most Virginia planters, George Mason was a slave owner. And like Jefferson, he found the concept of owning slaves morally objectionable. Most of my research suggests that the moral compromise he reached was to fight for a gradual end to slavery, starting with abolishing the slave trade which he found particularly horrific, stating that “[t]he augmentation of slaves weakens the states; and such a trade is diabolical in itself, and disgraceful to mankind”. During the United States Constitutional Convention he fought against a compromise adopted to guarantee the continuation of the slave trade until at least 1808. This clause made it into the United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 9 states:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

Due to the fact that the Constitution had this clause and the fact that it had no Bill of Rights (which he also fought for in the Convention), George Mason refused to sign the Constitution and was an anti-Federalist, objecting to the adopting of the Constitution. In 1791 the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, largely based upon Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights.

George Mason is not as well remembered as some of the other Founders, quite possibly due to his opposition to the US Constitution. Despite this, he was a champion of the rights that Americans take for granted and is rightly considered, along with James Madison, as a father of the Bill of Rights. George Mason University was founded in 1957 as a branch of the University of Virginia, becoming an independent university in 1972. And in 2006 it became the ultimate Cinderella in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the Final Four.

Text of the Virginia Declaration

I 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.

II 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.

III 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 these 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 most conducive to the public weal.

IV 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 be hereditary.

V 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.

VI 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.

VII 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.

VIII 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 favor, 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 judgement of his peers.

IX That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed; nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

X 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.

XI 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.

XII That the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.

XIII That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense 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 be governed by, the civil power.

XIV 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 be erected or established within the limits thereof.

XV That no free government, or the blessings 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.

XVI 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.

Adopted unanimously June 12, 1776 Virginia Convention of Delegates drafted by Mr. George Mason



5 thoughts on “Better Know a Founder – George Mason, Father of the Bill of Rights

  1. John Houston says:

    I attended George Mason University Law School in Arlington, va. I have many good mamories and am proud of the fact he fathered the concept of the Bill of Rights. I have three cousins, two form Georgia and one from New Jersey who served in the Constitutional concvention. William Houston is recorded in James madison’s notes as being the swing vote in the Constitutional convention making the united States a democracy. He cst the deciding vote.
    Thanks John

  2. publiusthegeek says:

    Thanks for the comments – some interesting stuff.

    I love what I’m doing as a software engineer, but the alternate life I could picture for myself would be as a constitutional lawyer. Amusingly, my eldest daughter (who is just about to turn 7) is super-interested in politics and history and keeps bugging my wife and I as to when we’ll be making a return trip to Williamsburg, VA – we took her there about a year ago. She’s been asking if she can go to college in Virgina when she gets older… 😉

  3. […] articulation of the federal government’s duty to preserve the rights of the people, was George Mason.  As the prescient Mason summarized, “This government will commence in a moderate […]

  4. […] articulation of the federal government’s duty to preserve the rights of the people, was George Mason.  As the prescient Mason summarized, “This government will commence in a moderate […]

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