Ge­orge Ma­son: The Vir­ginia states­man who in­sisted on a bill of rights

The Washington Times Daily - - CELEBRATING FREEDOM - By Scott Stroh “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 an

— Ar­ti­cle 1, Vir­ginia Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights

On May 6, 1776, the fifth Vir­ginia Con­ven­tion as­sem­bled in Wil­liams­burg. Del­e­gate Ge­orge Ma­son, elected “with some dif­fi­culty,” re­mained home suf­fer­ing from gout. Once re­cov­ered, he ar­rived in Wil­liams­burg on May 17.

Con­cur­rently, the Sec­ond Con­ti­nen­tal Congress con­tin­ued meet­ing in Philadel­phia and asked the colonies to or­ga­nize new gov­ern­ments. In re­sponse, the Vir­ginia Con­ven­tion es­tab­lished a com­mit­tee for this pur­pose, boast­ing over 30 mem­bers at the start.

Ma­son re­ceived an ap­point­ment to this Com­mit­tee on May 18. Con­sum­ing his en­ergy and in­ter­ests, he soon ex­pe­ri­enced frus­tra­tions with the Com­mit­tee, which he com­mu­ni­cated to Richard Henry Lee, writ­ing, “We are now go­ing upon the most im­por­tant of all sub­jects — gov­ern­ment: The Com­mit­tee ap­pointed to pre­pare a plan is, ac­cord­ing to cus­tom, over-charged with use­less mem­bers…..We shall, in all prob­a­bil­ity have a thou­sand ridicu­lous and im­prac­ti­ca­ble pro­pos­als, & of Course, a Plan form’d of het­ro­ge­nious, jar­ring & un­in­tel­li­gi­ble in­gre­di­ents…”

Ma­son did not re­sign him­self to this fate and be­gan writ­ing a plan for gov­ern­ment and bill of rights in­de­pen­dently. He worked quickly and ef­fi­ciently.

Once com­plete, Ma­son’s Vir­ginia Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights in­cluded ar­ti­cles stat­ing that gov­ern­ment ex­ists for the com­mon ben­e­fit, pro­tec­tion and se­cu­rity of the peo­ple, and when found in­ad­e­quate to this pur­pose, a ma­jor­ity of the com­mu­nity have a right to re­form, al­ter or abol­ish it.

Ma­son went on to ar­tic­u­late the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, pa­ram­e­ters for suf­frage and the right to free elec­tions. Other ar­ti­cles in­cluded pro­vi­sions for the due process of law, pro­ce­dural safe­guards for crim­i­nal de­fen­dants, the right to a speedy trial, the right to trial by jury, pro­tec­tions against ex­ces­sive bail, pro­tec­tions against self-in­crim­i­na­tion, and the pro­tec­tion of prop­erty from pub­lic use with­out con­sent.

Ma­son con­tin­ued by ex­press­ing that “the free­dom of the press is one of the great­est bul­warks of lib­erty,” that “a well reg­u­lated mili­tia ... is the proper, nat­u­ral, and safe de­fense of a free state,” that stand­ing armies in times of peace are dan­ger­ous to lib­erty, and that “all men are equally en­ti­tled to the free ex­er­cise of re­li­gion.”

These ar­ti­cles were rat­i­fied on June 12, 1776 by the Vir­ginia Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion.

“Part of the ge­nius of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights lay in Ma­son’s abil­ity to com­bine En­light­en­ment po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy with the English le­gal tra­di­tion to ex­press in scarcely two pages the ide­ol­ogy of the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion,” wrote Ma­son bi­og­ra­pher Jeff Broad­wa­ter. “In giv­ing le­gal sanc­tion to pop­u­lar sovereignty, in­di­vid­ual equal­ity, and the right to re­volt against an op­pres­sive gov­ern­ment, Ma­son cod­i­fied ba­sic lib­eral prin­ci­ples not then rec­og­nized in Amer­i­can and English law,” he wrote.

In 1787, as one of three del­e­gates to the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion who re­fused to sign the Con­sti­tu­tion, in part be­cause it lacked a bill of rights, Ma­son was no less com­mit­ted to the ideas he first ex­pressed in 1776.

Stat­ing that he would “sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Con­sti­tu­tion as it now stands,” Ma­son’s work con­tin­ued af­ter leav­ing Philadel­phia, and he joined Pa­trick Henry in op­pos­ing rat­i­fi­ca­tion when Vir­ginia took up the is­sue in 1788.

Ma­son faced con­stant pub­lic crit­i­cism as a re­sult of his dis­sent, but his con­tin­ued ad­vo­cacy for a bill of rights built mo­men­tum for its ul­ti­mate adop­tion — and he lived long enough to see its ad­di­tion to the Con­sti­tu­tion be­fore passing away at Gun­ston Hall in 1792.

Ma­son’s Vir­ginia Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights also be­came a foun­da­tional work for at­tempts at ar­tic­u­lat­ing rights in other coun­tries and at other times in our his­tory. Two pages in length, Ge­orge Ma­son’s Vir­ginia Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights ex­pressed ideas of sem­i­nal im­por­tance, ideas which proved in­flu­en­tial in Amer­i­can his­tory and which re­main in­cred­i­bly rel­e­vant to­day.

As we cel­e­brate the 225th an­niver­sary of the Bill of Rights, I ask you to also re­mem­ber Ge­orge Ma­son and the Vir­ginia Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights on its 240th an­niver­sary. A great way to do so is by vis­it­ing Gun­ston Hall.

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