George Mason (1725-1792) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. He was an influential member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Virginia Convention. He was a Virginia tobacco planter who grew wealthy using slave labor. Mason wrote both the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 and the Virginia state constitution, but he is best known for his refusal to sign the Constitution. The most important reason that Mason did not sign was the lack of a bill of rights. Mason wrote the first document ever written about the U.S. Constitution; he used a printed draft of the Constitution and wrote his Objections on the reverse. His opposition played a large role in the addition of the Bill of Rights (the first ten constitutional amendments) in 1791. He did not hold major office after 1787.
Mason inherited more than 15,000 acres of land in Virginia and Maryland including 5,500 at Gunston Hall. Like many Virginia planters, Mason was constantly increasing his holdings. By the time of his death in 1792, he owned more than 75,000 acres. He served as a town trustee of Alexandria, Virginia, and as a vestryman of the local Anglican church. Mason was the second largest slave holder in Fairfax County after George Washington. Washington held approximately 300 slaves at Mount Vernon, Mason probably had about 100 slaves. Unlike his friend George Washington, Mason never freed the slaves he owned instead willing them to his nine children.
Despite owning slaves himself, George Mason was ardently against the practice.
Virginia Declaration of Rights 1776
Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776; Thomas Jefferson used it as inspiration for the Declaration of Independence. The opening philosophical section is closely based on Virginia's "Declaration of Rights," a notable summary of current revolutionary philosophy, and adopted by Virginia in June 1776. Mason wrote:
- 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.
Jefferson rewrote it:
- We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
In 1787 Mason was a very active participant at the Constitutional Convention, representing the state of Virginia. Other members of the Virginia delegation to the Convention were John Blair, James Madison, James McClurg, Edmund Randolph, George Washington, and George Wythe.
Advocate for limited government
Mason was suspicious of centralized power, and he argued for limitations on such powers throughout the federal convention. Yet, he was also an effective nationalist and supported the third resolution of the Virginia Plan, which called for a national government with "supreme" departments. He defended the popular election of the House and favored the direct election of the Senate. Mason advocated age restrictions on government service, offering a motion that set the minimum age requirement for election to the House after others had moved that there be no age restrictions of House members. He also helped broker the "Great Compromise," which broke a major barrier that had threatened to break up the Convention; his compromise converted the small states into enthusiastic supporters of national power.
Bill of Rights
During the final days of the convention, Mason refused to sign the document and spoke out in 1787 and 1788 against it because it lacked a Bill of Rights. To secure adoption in Virginia James Madison compromised and made the campaign promise to propose amendments, and the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791. Mason was a close friend of George Washington until the 1787 Convention. After 1787, he and George Washington were no longer friends. Like his friends Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, Mason was an anti-Federalist.
Death and legacy
George Mason passed away on October 7, 1792, long believed to have been from complications with gout and possibly pneumonia.
George Mason University, a state university in Virginia, is named for him. His home, Gunston Hall, is open to the public all year, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day.
- "Forty years ago, when the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British parliament was advised by an artful man, who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them; but that they should not do it openly, but to weaken them and let them sink gradually, by totally disusing and neglecting the militia." 
- "Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a Country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities. He lamented that some of our Eastern brethren had from a lust of gain embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the States being in possession of the Right to import, this was the case with many other rights, now to be properly given up. He held it essential in every point of view that the General Government should have power to prevent the increase of slavery."
- "Are all laws whatever to be brought up? Is no road nor bridge to be established without the Sanction of the General Legislature? Is this to sit constantly in order to receive and revise the State Laws?–He did not mean by these remarks to condemn the expedient, but he was apprehensive that great objections would lie against it."
- The constitution as agreed to till fortnight before the convention rose was such a one as he could have set his hand and heart to.
- 1. The president was to be elected for 7 years, then ineligible for 7 more.
- 2. Rotation in the senate.
- 3. A vote of 2/3 in the legislature on particular subjects and expressly on that of navigation. The 3 New England states were constantly with us in all questions (Rhode Island not there, and New York seldom) so that it was these 3 states with the 5 Southern ones against Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
- With respect to the importation of slaves it was left to Congress. This disturbed the 2 Southernmost states who knew that Congress would immediately suppress the importation of slaves. Those 2 states therefore struck up a bargain with the 3 New England states. If they would join to admit slaves for some years, the 2 Southernmost states would join in changing the clause which required 2/3 of the legislature in any vote. It was done. These articles were changed accordingly, and from that moment the 2 Southern states and the 3 Northern ones joined Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, and made the majority 8 to 3 against us instead of 8 to 3 for us as it had been through the whole Convention. Under this coalition the great principles of the Constitution were changed in the last days of the Convention.
- See www.gunstonhall.org for more information about Mason, his house Gunston Hall, his family, and 2011 events.
- Broadwater, Jeff George Mason: Forgotten Founder. (2006)
- Miller, Helen Hill. George Mason, Constitutionalist. (2001).
- Rowland, Kate Mason. The Life Of George Mason, 1725-1792. (1892). old popular biography full text online
- Rutland, Robert A. George Mason: Reluctant Statesman (1980).
- Rutland, Robert A., et al. eds. The papers of George Mason, (1970). 3 vols
- Grandpa’s US Colonial History to 1800
- Fairfax County Resolves, July 18, 1774
- see "The Virginia Declaration of Rights," Final Draft, 12 June 1776
- George Mason, Forgotten Founder
- Mason here was referring to Sir William Keith
- The Life of George Mason, 1725-1792: Including His Speeches, Public Papers- Page 409 by Kate Mason Rowland
- Madison Debates, August 22
- Madison Debates, August 23
- Notes of a Conversation with George Mason, 30 September 1792