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