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