Here’s a shout-out to one of the sometimes-overlooked greats from the early days of this country – George Mason of Fairfax County.
Today, Dec. 11, is his birthday. That would be 290 candles if he was still around.
Mason has been called the “forgotten Founding Father,” but his influence was great. Thomas Jefferson called Mason “the wisest man of his generation.”
His family were wealthy landowners, with 20,000 acres in Virginia and Maryland. When he was 21, he took his position running the family plantations. He planted tobacco, but he was smart enough to add wheat to his holdings so he didn’t get caught short when tobacco prices tanked.
Mason held a number of local offices in Fairfax County and was active in colonial, later state, politics.
When revolution was coming to Virginia in the 1770s, Mason was elected as Fairfax County’s delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. He reluctantly took the seat held by his friend George Washington when Washington left to command the continental army.
He was appointed to the committee to draft a constitution and he took the lead. In June 1776, he produced his biggest claim to fame: the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Mason used the philosopher John Locke for much of his inspiration. Read it, and you’ll hear echoes of Mason in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
For example, it includes the statement that “[A]ll men are by nature born equally free and independent.”
In Mason’s Declaration, you’ll find other concepts that are now familiar and ingrained, including:
- Freedom the press
- Freedom of religion
- The right to a jury trial
- The right to a speedy trial
- A proscription against cruel and unusual punishment
Mason was one of Virginia’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia after the war, but he was a bit of a crank there. He was a vocal debater at the proceeding, and he ultimately refused to sign the Constitution because it did not prohibit slavery. He was a slave owner himself, but he found the practice repugnant.
He also opposed the new Constitution because it did not contain an enumeration of rights protecting the individual from the power of the government. His friend James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, sought to fix that oversight and rallied support for the addition of the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, passed in 1791.
French revolutionaries also paid tribute to Mason – you can find his influence in the French Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789.
As the new nation got going, Mason retired to his home along the Potomac River, Gunston Hall. He was a short, stout man who suffered from gout and other maladies; he died there in 1792 at age 66.
He hasn’t been totally forgotten, at least here in the Old Dominion: The commonwealth named a major university in Northern Virginia for him. George Mason University actually now is the largest university in the entire state.
In 2002, he got his due at the federal level with a memorial in the District of Columbia, not far from the Jefferson Memorial. Gunston Hall, on Mason Neck in Fairfax County, is open for tours.
So the next time you find yourself arguing some constitutional right on behalf of clients, they may well have George Mason to thank for looking out them, more than 200 years ago.
So, George, here’s to you: Happy birthday and thank you!