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Mason, George (1725–1792), revolutionary politician in America, was born in Fairfax county, Virginia, the eldest son of George Mason (1690–1735), a prominent tobacco planter, and Ann, née Thomson (1700–1762). Mason was nine years old when his father drowned in the Potomac in December 1735. Circumstances forced him into an early maturity, so that by the time contemporaries were going to college Mason was running a large plantation on Virginia's Northern Neck. His education was left to several Scottish tutors, who grounded their pupil in Latin and classical literature.

Mason's business acumen and spirited service on the Truro parish vestry led him into a circle that included the Washingtons, Lees, and others who would be prominent in the resistance movement from 1765 onward. His fortune was supplemented by marriage in 1750 to a Maryland heiress, Ann Eilbeck (1734–1773), and five years later he built an elegant home which he named Gunston Hall.

Early on Mason exhibited strong opinions and an impatience with government interference. When the Stamp Act crisis erupted in 1765, he and his neighbour George Washington were prominent in the resistance movement, and favoured a boycott of British goods until the obnoxious act was repealed. When parliament finally withdrew the legislation, Mason issued a warning that ‘Such another Experiment as the Stamp-Act wou'd produce a general Revolt in America’ (Papers, 1.70). Parliament, however, failed to heed this advice, and passage of the 1773 Boston Port Bill placed the colonies and the crown on a collision course. In Virginia money and supplies were raised to help the beleaguered Bostonians, and Mason took the lead among northern Virginians ready to consider armed resistance. Perhaps at Washington's urging, he wrote the Fairfax Resolves (1774) which called for a ban on the importation of British goods, beseeched parliament to stop the slave trade, and denounced lukewarm colonists for their cowardice. Washington carried the Resolves to the Virginia house of burgesses at Williamsburg. On his departure to serve in the continental army he was replaced by Mason, who, suffering from gout, frequently begged off public duties. None the less the opportunity to help shape the future brought Mason to the forefront at the Virginia convention in the spring of 1776.

Placed on committees preparing a constitution and bill of rights, Mason took his assignment as a mandate for radical change. A key witness reported that Mason's plans ‘swallow'd up all the rest’, as his draft of the Virginia declaration of rights, the first such document to deal with a citizen's rights, called for a free press, free speech, and ‘the free exercise of religion’ (Papers, 1.274, 289). Mason's draft also expressed the idea that all men were due their right ‘to life, liberty, and the pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety’ (ibid., 1.283). Mason's work was hurried into print in the Williamsburg newspaper, and was broadcast up and down the Atlantic seaboard in a matter of weeks. Soon constitutional framers in other new states enacted their own versions of his handiwork, not least Thomas Jefferson, who borrowed some felicitous phrasing for his own draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Mason refused to serve in the continental congress, but was a key figure on the Virginia committee of safety, which maintained civil government during most of the war. After the return of peace, Mason stayed at home to care for his family (his first wife had died in 1773) and for business matters. In April 1780 he married Sarah (1730–1806), widow of George Brent of Stafford county. During this period Mason received numerous entreaties to re-enter public service. He kept his ties with Patrick Henry, and probably at Henry's request accepted a post on the Virginia delegation to the federal convention in 1787.

‘The Expectations & Hopes of all the Union center in this Convention’ Mason wrote to his son from Philadelphia. Mason feared that a fragmented confederation would fail to address ‘the Evils which threaten us’ (Papers, 3.880). Frequently on his feet, Mason spoke 134 times and was responsible for the tax ban on interstate commerce, and for the impeachment clause ‘for high crimes and misdemeanors’. Mason harboured fears that northern shipping interests might inflict monopolistic laws on southern planters, but his efforts to thwart such legislation (commonly called ‘navigation laws’) failed. His late effort to add a bill of rights was also rejected. A disappointed Mason refused to sign the finished draft. He then opposed ratification of the constitution, chiefly citing the fact that it lacked a bill of rights. Mason's ‘Objections’ were printed in a pamphlet that began ‘There is no Declaration of Rights’: that first sentence became the rallying cry of anti-federalists everywhere.

Energized by the federalists' efforts to speed the ratification process by a quick resolution, Mason sought allies in Virginia. He joined Patrick Henry in opposing Virginia's ratification, and at the Richmond convention in June 1788 he delivered a powerful attack on the constitution, because, among other flaws, ‘it authorises the importation of slaves for twenty years, and thus continues upon us that nefarious trade’ (Papers, 3.1066). Mason had spoken out against slavery before, calling it an evil that invited the judgment of divine providence, but he remained a slaveholder himself, enmeshed in the dilemma that plagued most southern public men.

By a narrow margin Virginia ratified the constitution, and Mason accepted defeat without bitterness. Once the federal government was in operation, however, he criticized treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton's financial system. As he told James Monroe early in 1792, ‘Our new Government is a Government of Stock-jobbers and Favourtism’ (Papers, 3.1256). Mason worried about the American Indians on the frontier, and agreed with Jefferson that the government should seek to make Native Americans farmers instead of warriors. If ‘we cou'd bring the Indians to live, by cultivating the Ground’, he wrote to Monroe, ‘we shou'd probably hardly ever hear of another Indian War’ (ibid., 3.1260).

James Madison, who spoke of Mason as ‘a powerful reasoner, a profound statesman, and a devoted Republican’, introduced a bill of rights in the first congress, a move which Mason applauded (29 Dec 1827, Madison MSS, Library of Congress). Mason turned down a seat in the United States senate and devoted himself to his children and his thriving plantation. Jefferson—who once characterized Mason as a citizen ‘of the first order of greatness’ (Miller, 144)—last visited Mason shortly before the master of Gunston Hall died, at his home, on 7 October 1792. He was buried the following day at the family cemetery at Gunston Hall.

Robert Allen Rutland

Sources  

The papers of George Mason, ed. R. A. Rutland, 3 vols. (1970) · H. H. Miller, George Mason: gentleman revolutionary (1975) · R. A. Rutland, George Mason: reluctant statesman (1997) · L. Cong., George Mason MSS · B. Tarter, ‘Mason, George’, ANB · family bible, Gunston Hall, Fairfax county, Virginia · vestry books, Truro parish, L. Cong.