Founder of the first rank: Ge­orge Ma­son’s en­dur­ing legacy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Thomas Jef­fer­son was to call his neigh­bor and fel­low Vir­ginian, Ge­orge Ma­son, one of the truly great men and a fig­ure “of the first” rank. In­deed, he now has a univer­sity in the com­mon­wealth named af­ter him, his like­ness has been placed with those of other ma­jor law­mak­ers in his­tory in the Capi­tol build­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and there is also a statue of him sit­u­ated in the Na­tional Mall.

Yet Ma­son is not seen as be­ing in the­firstrankingoftheFound­ingFathers. In part, he of­ten avoided pub­lic of­fice and thus pub­lic dis­tinc­tion, cit­ing fam­ily obli­ga­tions and re­cur­ring­bout­sof­gout.Hecouldbe as iras­ci­ble as John Adams, as fear­fulof­gov­ern­mentabus­esasPa­trick Henry or as con­ser­va­tive as any other South­ern busi­ness­man of his time.

Yet he is best re­mem­bered and was­be­strevered­in­hisown­time­for his in­valu­able con­tri­bu­tions to the Amer­i­can char­ters of gov­ern­ment. Ma­sonop­posed­slav­ery,even­though he, like Jef­fer­son, lived off it rather hand­somely. He was more re­spon­si­ble than any­one in craft­ing Vir- ginia’s op­po­si­tion to the Bri­tish Crown’s taxes; he au­thored the so­called Fair­fax Re­solves crit­i­ciz­ing the royal gov­ern­ment, and drafted the frame­work of the Vir­ginia state con­sti­tu­tion. He was par­tic­u­larly com­mit­tedtofree­do­mofre­li­gion,as the colony was un­der­go­ing a ma­jor bat­tle as to whether to per­ma­nently dis­es­tab­lish the Angli­can Church and phase out pay­ing its min­is­ters from pub­lic levies.

Ma­son­was­men­tor­to­some­ofthe ma­jor Found­ing Fa­thers: Jef­fer­son, JamesMadi­son,JamesMon­roe­and even Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton. He was sin­gu­larly pre­oc­cu­pied in fund­ing the War for In­de­pen­dence in his state, and was treated as a man epit­o­miz­ing what his con­tem­po­raries called “civic virtue.”

Why did he not end up in the first tier of he­roes? In part it was his own dif­fi­dencethat­made­thed­if­fer­ence. It surely was not the qual­ity of his thought.In“Ge­orgeMa­son:Forgotten Founder,” Jeff Broad­wa­ter of Bar­tonCol­lege­has­done­bril­liantjob of un­der­stand­ing Ma­son and his philo­soph­i­cal es­says.

We have come to be­lieve from con­tem­po­rary his­to­ri­ans that there was a dis­tinc­tion be­tween those Founders who sup­ported John Locke’s em­pha­sis on in­di­vid­ual lib­erty and the sus­pi­cious Amer­i­can Whigs who feared most the cor­rup­tions of gov­ern­ment and of­fice hold­ers. But most of th­ese fig­ures in their time com­bined both views in their op­po­si­tion to the Crown. They saw re­straint as the ba­sis of per­sonal free­dom, and they be­lieved that an ac­quis­i­tive so­ci­ety pro­vided the ex­cess wealth, the aim­less leisure, the ne­glect of civic duty that would de­stroy a repub­lic and its sim­ple life. They had learned that from his­tory.

An­other one of the causes of Ma­son’s rank­ing in his­tory was his de­ter­mine­doppo­si­tion­totheAmer­i­can Con­sti­tu­tion, which led to a cool­ness with Wash­ing­ton. Lead­ing the anti-Fed­er­al­ists, Ma­son de­manded­abillofrights,and­he­found an ally in James Madi­son who com­piled the var­i­ous pro­pos­als sub­mit­ted from all over the na­tion into one list­ing. Most but not all th­ese pro­hi­bi­tions were sent on to the Congress and the states where they were quickly ap­proved, in­di­cat­ing that Ma­son’sviewswerethose­ofthe­new na­tion. It is that char­ter of lib­er­ties that has so in­flu­enced the French Revo­lu­tio­n­and­hu­man­rightsmove­ments down to our very day.

Ma­son ar­gued in the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion of 1787 that the North did not re­spect the South’s needs on nav­i­ga­tional rights, and that sec­tion­al­ism would be the split­ting­point.He­was­rightabout­the­dy­nam­ics of sep­a­ra­tion, but not the is­sue — it would be slav­ery that provedthe­di­vid­ing­line.The­Found­ing Fa­thers, es­pe­cially in Vir­ginia where 40 per­cent of the slave pop­u­la­tion was lo­cated, un­der­stood the cen­tral be­trayal of the sen­ti­ments of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and their own do­mes­tic in­sti­tu­tions.

Bu­tun­likeWash­ing­ton­whoended up free­ing his slaves, Ma­son con­tin­ued on as a planter-slave­holder. Still, his pow­er­ful words, his love of free­dom, his in­sis­tence that there must be checks and bal­ances led to a new rhetoric that even­tu­ally was turned on the South. He cre­ated the mir­ror; oth­ers held it up to full view.

It is ironic that while so many of us wish the na­tion and its courts would go back and be guided by the orig­i­nal in­tent of the Founders, we nev­er­the­less sup­port abridg­ments of lib­er­ties so prized by the Founders. As Ge­orge Ma­son re­minded us, a gov­ern­ment of free peo­ple re­quires trial by jury, fac­ing open­ly­one’sac­cusers,free­do­mofre­li­gious be­lief or un­be­lief and lim­its on elected and es­pe­cially ap­pointed of­fi­cials.

TheFound­ingFather­so­fall­ranks had fought so long for free­dom that they were un­will­ing to see it abridged, com­pro­mised or traded away un­der the name of se­cu­rity or per­son­al­priv­i­lege.Per­hap­sGe­orge Ma­son is more rel­e­vant than we thought at first mod­ern glance.

Michael P. Ric­cards is the au­thor of the two-vol­ume his­tory of the pres­i­dency, “The Fe­ro­cious En­gine of Democ­racy.”

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