George Mason (1725–92) of Gunston Hall, Virginia, was one of revolutionary America’s foremost constitutionalists. In the Virginia Convention of 1776, he served as the chief author of the Virginia Constitution of 1776, the first written constitution adopted by the people’s representatives in the history of the world. He also bore primary responsibility for the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, the first American declaration of rights, which later served as the template for the bills of rights of most of the other American states, of revolutionary France, of the United Nations, and—through them—of many of the former European colonies throughout the world.
George Mason always styled himself a man of the dispensation of 1688, the English Glorious Revolution, and it was to British history that Mason looked for examples of good political principles in practice. This devotion to the British example helps to explain why Virginia adopted its Declaration of Rights before its Constitution. It also helps to account for Mason’s earlier protests of British colonial policy in North America.
Mason disliked political life, and therefore never held high executive office. However, when his Virginian peers considered whom to send to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, Mason was an obvious choice. In Philadelphia, Mason opposed both the continued importation of slaves and the provision of the Constitution empowering Congress to raise tariffs by mere majority vote. The subsequent century would demonstrate that he was right in forecasting that importation of slaves and northern domination of Congress, thus control of the tariff power, would lead to sectional strife and likely to bloodshed.
Mason also objected to the omission of a bill of rights from the Constitution as drafted at Philadelphia. It was principally because of these three flaws, as well as because he held the powers of Congress and the federal courts to be too indefinite and undefined, that Mason helped to rally Anti-Federalists in Virginia to oppose the Constitution in the Richmond Ratification Convention of 1788.
Because of George Washington’s unhappiness with his Anti-Federalist stance, Mason was not elected a delegate from his Northern Neck home in Westmoreland County, but had to seek election elsewhere in the state. Still, in that convention, Mason joined with Patrick Henry, William Grayson, and James Monroe in lodging powerful, heartfelt protests against the Constitution. How, they asked, could Virginians be expected so soon after the Revolution to give unlimited powers to a new, distant government?
When he came to recommend amendments to the Constitution in the First Congress, James Madison included among his explanations that he hoped to allay the fears of citizens who had long been devoted to American independence and who were seriously concerned lest the fruits of the Revolution be frittered away. Among the provisions of the Bill of Rights echoing Mason’s stated concerns were the Second and Tenth Amendments. Although he had been asked to do so, Mason refused to accept a seat in the first Senate, so he played no direct role in adopting the Bill of Rights; he always preferred life at Gunston Hall. Born in 1725, Mason died at Gunston Hall on October 7, 1792.
Merrill Jensen et al., ed., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, vols. 8–10 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1976); and Robert A. Rutland, George Mason, Reluctant Statesman (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1961).
Kevin R. C. Gutzman
Last Updated: 2006