This essay first appeared in the May 26, 2023 Epoch Times.
“If the Govt. is to be lasting, it must be founded in the confidence & affections of the people …”—George Mason, at the Constitutional Convention, Aug. 13, 1787.
George Mason of Virginia helped construct the Constitution. He then opposed ratifying the very document he helped construct. Through both courses of action, he strongly influenced the Constitution’s final form.
Mason was born on Dec. 11, 1725 (by the current calendar), in the region later known as Fairfax County, Virginia. About the time of George’s tenth birthday, his father was drowned in the Potomac River. His uncle, the noted legal scholar John Mercer, took charge of his education. Through Mercer and private tutors, the boy received a thorough grounding in Latin and the classics.
The lad also helped his mother in managing their extensive family estate. George proved to have an ample talent for business.
In 1750, he married Anne Eilbeck. He and Anne had nine children, of whom three died in infancy. She died in 1773. Seven years later, he wed Sarah Brent, then past her childbearing time.
Mason was essentially a private man with no strong desire for public office. He preferred to manage his affairs from the home he had built—Gunston Hall. He also was plagued by ill health. However, he agreed to serve in Virginia’s House of Burgesses (1758–1761) and in some of the varied assemblies that governed Virginia during the Revolution. He steadfastly declined election to the Continental and Confederation Congresses and, subsequently, to the U.S. Senate.
Mason commanded great respect for his wisdom and ability. Men more active in politics distributed his writings and adopted his ideas. For example, in 1774 his neighbor and friend George Washington convinced the citizens of Fairfax County to endorse Mason’s statement of colonial rights known as the “Fairfax Resolves.”
Mason also was the principal author of Virginia’s first constitution (1776). That document contained both a “Declaration of Rights” and a “Form of Government.” Much of the substance and phrasing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights appeared later in the United States Declaration of Independence and in the Bill of Rights.
In early 1785, Mason served as one of Virginia’s commissioners for negotiating with Maryland over navigation of the Potomac River. In 1786, the state legislature likewise named him as a commissioner to the Annapolis Convention, but the notice of his appointment arrived too late for him to attend. Later that year, the legislature designated him as one of seven delegates to the Constitutional Convention, scheduled to meet the following May.
The Constitutional Convention
The records of the first 10 weeks of the Constitutional Convention contain little to suggest that Mason would oppose the final product. This senior statesman (he was then 62) firmly believed that a stronger central government was necessary. He spoke frequently and to good purpose. The views he expressed were well within the convention mainstream.
Of course, sometimes his colleagues rejected his ideas. For example, he advocated a plural executive, but the convention opted for a single president. But far more of his views were accepted. Here are some of them:
- The central government should be able to enforce its laws directly rather than asking the states to do so;
- members of Congress should be paid by the federal rather than the state treasuries;
- each state should have two senators, selected by their state legislatures;
- Representatives should be elected by the people for two-year terms;
- each Representative should be at least 25 years old and at least seven years a citizen of the United States;
- the president should be able to veto bills, subject to override by a super-majority of Congress;
- the president should be required to take an oath of office;
- the Constitution’s definition of “treason” should be based on specific language from a venerable English statute;
- the Constitution should include guards against Congress being co-opted by the executive;
- “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” should be grounds for impeachment;
- Congress shouldn’t be able to veto state laws; and
- the states should be able to amend the Constitution without the approval of Congress.
Mason also was one of several delegates who pointed out that the convention had full authority to propose a new form of government.
As the proceedings wore on, however, Mason began to raise serious objections to how the document was shaping up. For example, he fiercely opposed the bargain by which the Constitution temporarily accommodated the slave trade. Here is Madison’s report of a portion of Mason’s speech, delivered on the convention floor on Aug. 22, 1787.
“This infernal trafic [sic] originated in the avarice of British Merchants. The British Govt. constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it … Maryland & Virginia … had already prohibited the importation of slaves expressly. N. Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be in vain if S. Carolina & Georgia be at liberty to import. … Slavery discourages arts [i.e., crafts] & manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of Whites, who really enrich & strengthen a Country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. … He held it essential in every point of view, that the Genl. Govt. should have power to prevent the increase of slavery.”
(Note how the facts recounted in Mason’s speech contradict some of the dubious claims of the New York Times’ notorious “1619 Project.”)
Mason’s Other Objections
When the Constitution’s final draft was almost complete, Mason summarized some of his reservations in a short paper. This paper was widely disseminated, and during the ratification debates opponents relied on it for talking points. At the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788, Mason delivered about 45 floor speeches. He elaborated on his original objections and raised others as well. Among opponents, Patrick Henry provided most of the eloquence, while Mason provided most of the substance.
On the Founding-era political spectrum (discussed in the first essay in this series), Mason was not, like Henry, a firm Antifederalist. Rather, like Gov. Edmund Randolph, he was a “conditional federalist.” In other words, both Randolph and Mason supported ratifying the Constitution if certain conditions were met. The difference between the two was that Randolph’s conditions had been fulfilled or rendered irrelevant, but Mason’s had not.
Most of Mason’s positions can be summarized by saying he thought the U.S. Constitution should be more like the one he had drafted for Virginia.
His central fear was of a federal government that was too aristocratic—in which control was concentrated in a cabal consisting of the president and a small Senate. He wanted the federal government to be more democratic.
Accordingly, he proposed enlarging the House of Representatives, depriving Congress of power to manipulate its own elections, checking the president with an executive council, imposing term limits on some officers, and banning the Senate from initiating financial appropriations.
And most importantly, he sought a bill of rights to protect individual liberties and the reserved authority of the states.
He suggested other changes as well. He would have limited Congress’s power to impose direct taxes. He wanted a requirement that bills regulating foreign commerce obtain a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress. He thought that Congress’s unlimited authority over the capital district (now Washington, DC) might be abused. And he worried that the Constitution’s ban on state ex post facto laws might impede useful civil legislation. (As I related in an earlier essay, Mason made this point by quoting a line from the Roman poet Virgil.)
Mason advocated a second federal convention to consider suggested amendments.
This Virginia senior statesman influenced the Constitution through his many contributions at the drafting convention. He also supported the compromises that made the document possible.
His subsequent opposition—and especially his support for a bill of rights—laid the groundwork for the gentlemen’s agreement by which the Constitution ultimately came into effect. The agreement was that moderate opponents would vote to ratify, and proponents would help secure a bill of rights (pdf).
Thus, if Mason hadn’t paved the way, the Constitution might never have been adopted. Or if adopted, it might not include the Bill of Rights.