George Mason

This essay has a total of 4994 words and 20 pages.

George Mason

There were three principal meetings that led to the adoption of the Constitution of the
United States, and only two Virginians attended all three. The meetings were the Mount
Vernon Conference of 1785, the Annapolis Convention of 1786 and the Philadelphia
Convention in 1787. James Madison was one attendee, and he is well known as the Father of
the Constitution and our fourth President. George Mason was the other, yet his name does
not spring to mind. Does George Mason deserve the accolade "Founding Father?" This paper
will explore the political life of Mason and attempt to answer the question affirmatively.

Before exploring Mason through his papers, his biographies and the papers of his
contemporaries, it is necessary to decide what one must have done to be included in the
list of our republic's founders. For purposes of this investigation, we must find that
Mason's words or actions were influential in the document as finally ratified. While
Mason's authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights is easily tied to the Bill of
Rights, the question for this paper is whether Mason's handprints appear on the mold of
our Constitution. Mason is well regarded as a political writer. "His three most brilliant
papers - 'Extracts from the Virginia Charters', 'The Virginia Resolutions' and
'Declaration of Rights' have become immortalized as the very foundations of American
democracy." Herbert Lawrence Ganter identified George Mason as an "eighteenth century
champion of liberty for all." But these approbations are difficult to uncover. More
commonly, one finds quotations such as "…the writings of the great thinkers of the age -
Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Adams…"

To adequately examine George Mason, a brief review of his pre-convention life and
activities helps set up his provenance as a founding father. George Mason, the fourth so
named in this lineage, was born about 1725. His father drowned during a squall while
crossing the Potomac in 1735. His education was at the hand of his paternal uncle and
co-guardian John Mercer of Marlborough who had "…assembled one of the outstanding
libraries in the colony…" Mercer's collection was heavily weighted toward law and legal
treatises but contained the currently popular classic literature as well as works on
philosophy, mathematics and science. Notwithstanding his services to the town of
Alexandria, Virginia and his brief stints in the Virginia House of Burgesses, Mason's
first major contribution to the American political literature was a plan he conceived to
thwart the effect of the unpopular Stamp Act of 1765. This work by Mason is cited often in
the literature, although the reason for its inclusion appears to be his tirade renouncing
the tradition of slavery. However, beyond a brief mention of the evils of slavery in the
opening paragraph, the true value of this document is the description of a scheme to avoid
Stamp Act taxation while retaining security in bonds and rents. This intricate plan was
never implemented as the Stamp Act was repealed shortly afterward.

The British Parliament adopted the Townshend Acts 1767, the colonies responded by adopting
non-importation associations, and George Mason's hand was to be found in those documents.
The Virginia Nonimportation Resolutions were modeled after the original resolve of
Philadelphia merchants. Scholars argue over whether this was the sole work of Mason, or
whether he merely served on the committee. Nevertheless, on April 5th, 1769, George
Washington forwarded copies of the Philadelphia resolution to George Mason. That same day,
George Mason dispatched his reply to Washington, expressing Mason's thoughts at
implementation of the plan. The important element of this exchange is that Mason was
already in possession of the plan when Washington forwarded duplicates. Mason explained
that he was "…inclosing the Resolves of the Merchts. in Philadelphia &c. which…I had
before recd. Duplicates of them from our Friend the Doctor." Problems with the Crown
continued, and in response to the Tea Party in 1773, Parliament passed the Boston Port
Bill. Responding to requests for aid from Massachusetts, prominent Virginians in Fairfax
County assembled to consider what could be done. In addition to providing relief in the
form of goods, Fairfax County decided to issues a series of resolves. George Washington,
in his capacity as chairman of the meeting and a member of the committee selected to draft
the resolves appointed George Mason the task of drafting these potentially treasonous
statements of resolve. Although taken by themselves the Fairfax County Resolves seem less
than important, their significance lies in the hand of George Mason whose political
thoughts are expressed there. These resolutions cleared the path for the Virginia
Convention in Richmond in 1775, the formation of the Continental Congress and the adoption
of Jefferson's masterpiece, the Declaration of Independence.

Mason continued to be involved in local government movements which were opposed to the
activities of the Crown. Having made the resolution, Fairfax County once again assembled,
this time with George Mason as chair, and formed the Fairfax County Militia Association,
the first such company to be established on the continent. While Mason seemed comfortable
with his public service on a local basis, the death of his wife Ann Eilbeck Mason in 1773
had left him with nine motherless children, ranging in age from twenty to three years.
When George Washington vacated his position in the Virginia Convention to serve as
commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Mason was approached to fill his post as a
deputy of Fairfax County. His letter of regret, dated July 11, 1775 and postmarked Gunston
Hall, reads in part: "I entreat you, Sir, to reflect on the duty I owe to a poor little
helpless family of orphans to whom I now must act the part of father and mother both…"
His regrets were for naught, as Mason served as a deputy from Fairfax County in the
Virginia Convention held in Williamsburg in July 1775. His service continued through the
next year, when independence was at the forefront of political thought. The convention,
which included such Virginia political luminaries as Patrick Henry, James Madison and
Edmund Randolph, in fact passed a resolution calling on the Virginia delegates to Congress
to declare independence. A second resolution "…appointed a committee to prepare a
declaration of rights and a plan of government 'as will be most likely to maintain peace
and order in the colony, and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people.'" The
committee considered plans submitted by John Adams, Carter Braxton and Thomas Jefferson.
The chosen author was George Mason.

Mason has been identified by both of his biographers as being short tempered with
committee service due to his quick mind and expansive knowledge. From Williamsburg, on May
18th, 1776, Mason wrote to Richard Henry Lee: "The Committee appointed to prepare a plan
is, according to Custom, overcharged 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;" "The most contemporary evidence of
Mason's major authorship of the Virginia Constitution is from William Fleming, Convention
delegate from Cumberland County, who on 22 June sent Jefferson a committee print, revised
to date, of the frame of government being considered by the Convention, with the notation:
'the inclosed printed plan was drawn by Colo. G. Mason and by him laid before the
committee.'" On June 29, Richard Henry Lee, in a letter to General Charles Lee, said, "I
have been in this City a week where I have had the pleasure to see our new plan of
Government go on well. This day will put a finishing hand to it. 'Tis very much of the
democratic kind."

Not only did Mason author and accept credit for the Virginia Declaration of Rights, he is
credited with providing the principal framework for the Virginia Constitution. There are
three important and noteworthy aspects of the Virginia Convention of 1776. George Mason
was the principal architect of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and substantial
contributor to the plan of government (the Constitution). "In this forum he was to win
imperishable fame as the chief architect and builder of a new government, a complete
structure founded on an exhaustive enumeration of the fundamental principles of civil and
religious liberty." The Declaration of Rights was written and agreed upon prior to
consideration of the plan of government. Young James Madison was in attendance during the
contemplations and debates. Madison was only twenty five years old, and serving in his
first public capacity. Mason was older (he was about fifty one), vastly richer and more
experienced. Madison, in his autobiographical notes published in 1832, reflected on his
attendance at the convention, wherein he did not enter into the debates. His only
substantive comment relating to his activities was his disagreement with "Geo. Mason, who
had inadvertently adopted the word 'toleration' in the articles on that subject (freedom
of conscience). The change suggested and accepted, substituted a phraseology which -
declared the freedom of conscience to be a natural and absolute right."

What sort of man presented himself at the Virginia Convention? Thomas Jefferson, in his
autobiography, said that Mason was "…a man of the first order of wisdom… of expansive
mind, profound judgment, cogent in argument, learned in the lore of our former
constitution, and earnest for the republican change on democratic principles. His
elocution was neither flowing nor smooth, but his language was strong, his manner most
impressive, and strengthened by a dash of biting cynicism when provocation made it
seasonable." Mason's idea of proper government came from his intense knowledge of the
works of John Locke, and his choice of the term "commonwealth" for the form of Virginia's
government was based on the Lockean notion that a commonwealth was a form of government
wherein the legislature was supreme. The Commonwealth of Virginia, as established in 1776,
was bicameral, provided for a salaried governor and treasurer chosen annually by joint
ballot of both Houses, a Privy Council to assist in administration, a supreme judiciary
appointed by both Houses and inferior courts appointed by the governor and Privy Council.

George Mason served as a delegate from Fairfax County until 1780 whereupon he retired from
public life to attend to matters at Gunston Hall. Long saddled with the discomfort of gout
(which Mason referred to as "St. Elmo's Fire"), he eschewed public service in most of his
correspondence, but as this phrase in a letter to Edmund Randolph of October 19, 1782
shows, he "…wou'd at any time, most cheerfully, sacrifice my own Ease & domestic
Enjoyment to the Public-Good."

By providence and happenstance George Mason attended the Mount Vernon Conference of 1785
and was a signatory to the Mount Vernon Compact that settled navigation and landing rights
issues with Maryland along the Potomac River. Scholars maintain that James Madison, who
had been appointed a commissioner but failed to receive timely notice, was so pleased with
the comity achieved between the two states that he pressed for a larger meeting in
Annapolis to discuss defects in the Articles of Confederation relating to interstate
commerce. Mason was appointed a commissioner to attend this conference, but his persistent
struggle with gout prevented his attendance.

On April 12, 1787, George Mason replied to a notice from Edmund Randolph, Governor of
Virginia, which had advised Mason that he had been appointed a delegate for "…the
Meeting of the Deputys of the different States, in the City of Philadelphia." Mason
reached Philadelphia on May 17th, and advised his son, George Mason Jr, by letter dated
May 20th that he was staying at the old Indian Queen in 4th Street. By May 26th, enough
delegates had arrived to meet and appoint George Washington as President and Major Jackson
as secretary.

The following is a chronological progression detailing, where necessary, the advice,
counsel and arguments proffered by Mason during the Convention. In some instances the
chronology makes a terse statement regarding Mason's position. These entries are intended
to highlight and emphasize the number of times Mason expressed his opinions. "By actual
count, he stood and spoke 128 times, …more frequently than any of the other members
except Madison, Morris and Wilson." The entire chronological discussion relies on the
papers of Madison available from a variety of sources.

On May 28, the first day of the convention, the first order of business was an objection
by Rufus King of Massachusetts to the ability of any member to call yeas and nays. Mason
seconded the objection, stating "…such a record of the opinions of members would be an
obstacle to a change of them on conviction."

On May 30, Mason made the observation that the present Articles of Confederation were
deficient in ability to coerce and punish states. He suggested that a government needed to
be able to operate directly on individuals. This position counters those who claim Mason
was an Anti-Federalist because of his opposition to federalism per se.

On May 31, Mason argued at length that the election of the larger house (the House of
Representatives) be directly elected by the people. He said that this body would be
analogous to the British House of Commons. This concept was in contrast to the position of
Roger Sherman of Connecticut, who wanted election to be by State Legislatures.

On June 1, the delegates discussed the term of the President. Mason wanted the executive
to hold a seven year single term. Madison recorded that Mason favored "…prohibiting a
re-eligibility as the best expedient both for preventing the effect of a false
complaisance on the side of the Legislature towards unfit characters; and a temptation on
the side of the Executive to intrigue with the Legislature for a re-appointment." The
discussion turned to the manner of determining how the executive would be empowered. Mason
favored the idea of appointment by the people, but thought it impracticable. On his
motion, the proposed clause which would have the President to be chosen by Nat'l
Legislature was postponed for later discussion.

On June 2, the delegates took up the issue of removal of the executive. Mason agreed that
some mode of displacing was indispensable, but he was opposed making the Executive the
mere creature of the Legislature. This position reflects Mason's belief that a government
should be comprised of checks and balances.

June 4 saw the wrangling and vote on whether the government should have a single
executive. Mason had been in favor of a dual executive position, and voted his opposition
by proxy.

On June 7, just prior to the unanimous vote to permit State legislatures to appoint the
Senate body, Mason rose to express his concerns for States rights and reservation of
power. He supported the idea of the Senate serving at the pleasure of the States as a
means "…to make them a constituent part of, the Natl. Establishment."

On June 8, Charles Pinckney moved to permit national authority to negate state laws that
were contrary to the articles of Union. Although the Virginia delegation approved this,
both Edmund Randolph and George Mason voted against giving that authority to the national
government. The motion failed.

June 11, on the issue of allowing amendments without consent of national legislature,
Mason urged the necessity for "easy, regular and Constitutional way" to amend.

On June 12, George Mason seconded Madison motion requiring the fixed and equal
compensation of legislators by the national government rather than varying compensation
set and paid for by state legislatures.

From June 13 through June 19th Mason was either absent or silent.
On June 20 the delegates revisited the issue of a bicameral or single body assembly for
the legislature. Mason complained that the issue had been previously discussed and debated
and there should be two bodies.

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