December 11, 1725
Fairfax County, Colony of Virginia, British America
|Died||October 7, 1792
Gunston Hall, Fairfax County, Virginia, U.S.
Cause of death
|Residence||Gunston Hall, Fairfax County, Virginia, U.S.|
|Occupation||Patriot, statesman and delegate from Virginia to the U.S. Constitutional Convention|
|Children||George Mason V
Ann Eilbeck Mason Johnson
Sarah Eilbeck Mason McCarty
Mary Thomson Mason Cooke
Elizabeth Mason Thornton
|Parent(s)||George Mason III
Ann Stevens Thomson
George Mason IV (December 11, 1725 – October 7, 1792) was an American Patriot, statesman and a delegate from Virginia to the U.S. Constitutional Convention. Along with James Madison, he is called the "Father of the United States Bill of Rights." For these reasons he is considered one of the "Founding Fathers" of the United States.
Like anti-federalist Patrick Henry, Mason was a leader of those who pressed for the addition of explicit States rights and individual rights to the U.S. Constitution as a balance to the increased federal powers, and did not sign the document in part because it lacked such a statement. His efforts eventually succeeded in convincing the Federalists to add the first 10 amendments of the Constitution. These amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were based on the earlier Virginia Declaration of Rights, which Mason had drafted in 1776.
On the issue of slavery, Mason walked a fine line. Although a slaveholder himself, he found slavery distasteful for a variety of reasons. He wanted to ban further importation of slaves from Africa and prevent slavery from spreading to more states. However, he did not want the new federal government to attempt to ban slavery where it already existed, because he anticipated that such an act would be difficult and controversial.
George Mason was born on December 11, 1725 to George and Ann Thomson Mason at the Mason family plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia. In 1735, when Mason was 10, his father drowned in the Potomac when the boat he was in capsized.
After his father's death, Mason lived with his uncle John Mercer, who (along with his mother) became his legal guardian. Mercer was a leading Virginia attorney. Mason studied in Mercer's private library, which consisted of between 1,500 and 1,800 volumes. Approximately one-third of these books regarded the law. Mason studied with tutors and attended a private academy in Maryland.
Mason served at the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg in 1776. During this time he created drafts of the first declaration of rights and state constitution in the Colonies. Both were adopted after committee alterations; the Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted June 12, 1776, and the Virginia Constitution was adopted June 29, 1776.
Article 1 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights — a statement later made internationally famous by the first paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence — states that:
"All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
Constitutional Convention and Ratification
Mason was appointed in 1786 as a delegate to a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. He served from May to September 1787 and was one of the five most frequent speakers at the convention. Wary of investing too much power in the executive branch in the proposed new Constitution because it might lead to corruption or monarchy, Mason advocated a three-person presidency, with co-presidents chosen by region. In addition, he was a strong proponent of a bicameral legislature and argued for election of United States Senators by state legislatures.
Though he was a slave owner himself, Mason advocated against slavery during the convention, arguing unsuccessfully in favor of gradual emancipation and compensation to slave owners.
An important consideration for Mason was that the new Constitution should include a Bill of Rights in order to protect against possible federal overreach. He suggested the addition of one modeled on previous state declarations, but it was defeated in a vote of the delegates.
Mason also argued that the proposed United States House of Representatives did not have powers to make it truly representative of the people, and that the proposed United States Senate had too much power. In addition, he objected to the powers of the proposed federal judiciary, arguing that they would usurp the authority of the state governments.
Mason refused to sign the final version of the Constitution and returned to Virginia as an outspoken opponent of ratification.
As a delegate to Virginia's ratification convention, he helped lead the anti-federalist faction, opposing approval of the Constitution unless it included a Bill of Rights. Despite his efforts, Virginia ratified the Constitution in 1788.
Mason eventually carried his point on individual rights with the 1791 approval of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, which were based primarily on Mason's 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. He also carried his point about the federal judiciary with the 1795 passage of the Eleventh Amendment, which limited the powers of the federal court system.
George Mason was one of the largest slaveholders in Fairfax County (possibly second only to George Washington) and had thirty-six slaves at the time of his death. Like some of his contemporary slave owners (e.g. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington), Mason conceded that the institution was morally objectionable, once calling it a "slow Poison" that "is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People." Mason favored the abolition of the slave trade, but he did not advocate for the immediate abolition of slavery.Like Jefferson, in his last will, he named slaves whom he did not manumit.
Two of Mason's stated reasons for opposing the U.S. Constitution were that the draft Constitution did not specifically protect the right of states to let slavery continue where it already existed, and that the draft Constitution did not allow Congress to immediately stop the importation of slaves. Mason's immediate concern was to prevent more slaves from being imported, and to prevent slavery from spreading into more states. He was not eager to ban slavery where it already existed: "It is far from being a desirable property. But it will involve us in great difficulties and infelicity to be now deprived of them." Mason ostensibly balanced his anti-slavery argument that importation should stop, with a pro-slavery argument that the draft Constitution should protect slavery from being taxed out of existence; however, the latter argument had already been incorporated into the Constitution according to James Madison.
Because of his efforts to stop the spread of slavery, and his recognition of the undesirability of slavery, some historians have said that Mason should be categorized as an abolitionist.:294, note 39 Other historians have disagreed.
At the age of twenty four, George Mason married sixteen-year-old Ann Eilbeck, from a plantation in Charles County, Maryland, on April 4, 1750. They lived in a house on his property in Dogue's Neck, Virginia, for the first few years. Mason's wife died on March 9, 1773.
George Mason remarried on April 11, 1780, and did not have any children with his new wife, Sarah Brent.
George Mason died of natural causes at his home, Gunston Hall, on October 7, 1792. He left a personal message for his sons in his will: "I recommend it to my sons, from my experience in life, to prefer the happiness and independence of a private station, to the troubles and vexation of public business" but added that if they should engage in public affairs, nothing should "deter them from asserting the liberty of their country, and endeavouring to transmit to their posterity those sacred rights to which themselves were born."
Mason completed construction in 1759 of Gunston Hall, a plantation house on the Potomac River. Gunston Hall is a Georgian mansion in Mason Neck, Virginia. It was located at the center of a 5,500 acre (22 km²) plantation. Gunston Hall was built from 1755 to 1759. The home and grounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now a museum owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and open to the public.
The interior of the house and its design was mostly the work of William Buckland, a carpenter/joiner and indentured servant from England. Both he and William Bernard Sears, another indentured servant, are believed to have created the ornate woodwork and interior carving. Gunston's interior design combines elements of rococo, chinoiserie, and Gothic styles, an unusual contrast to the tendency for simple decoration in Virginia at this time. Although chinoiserie was popular in Britain, Gunston Hall is the only house known to have had this decoration in colonial America. After Mason's death, the house continued to be used as a residence for many years.
Mason and his wife had twelve children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. Mason's first child, George Mason V of Lexington, was born on April 30, 1753. He married Elizabeth Mary Ann Barnes Hooe (Betsy) on April 22, 1784, and after having six children, died on December 5, 1796. The next Mason offspring was Ann Eilbeck Mason, fondly known as Nancy. Born on January 13, 1755, she married Rinaldo Johnson on February 4, 1789 and had three children before dying in 1814. The third child was named William Mason, but he did not live over a year and died in 1757. The fourth child, born on October 22, 1757, was also named William Mason, and he married Ann Stuart on July 11, 1793. They had five children together, and he died in 1818. The fifth child was a son they named Thomson Mason. He was born on March 4, 1759 and died on March 11, 1820. Thomson married Sarah McCarty Chichester of Newington in 1784; they had eight children.
George Mason's sixth child, christened Sarah Eilbeck Mason but fondly known as Sally, was born on December 11, 1760 and married in 1778. She had ten children with her husband Daniel McCarty, Jr. before dying on September 11, 1823. The seventh of the Mason children was another girl, Mary Thomson Mason. She was born on January 24, 1764, and married John Travers Cooke on November 18, 1784, with whom she had ten children before dying in 1806. John Mason was Mason's eighth child, being born on April 4, 1766. He married Anna Marie Murray on February 14, 1796, had ten children, and died on March 19, 1849. The ninth child was a daughter named Elizabeth Mason. She was born on April 19, 1768 and died sometime between 1792 and June 1797. She married William Thornton in 1789 and they had two children. The tenth child, Thomas Mason, was born on May 1, 1770 and died on September 18, 1800. He married Sarah Barnes Hooe on April 22, 1793 and the two had four children together.
George Mason's last two children were James and Richard Mason; twins who were born in December, 1772 but died six weeks later.
Gunston Hall, located in Mason Neck, Virginia, is now a museum and tourist attraction. The George Mason Memorial in West Potomac Park, Washington, D.C., near the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, was dedicated on April 9, 2002. The George Mason Memorial Bridge, one of five that make up the 14th Street Bridge, connects Washington, D.C., to Virginia. George Mason Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, George Mason High School in Falls Church, and George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, are named in his honor, as are Mason County, Kentucky, Mason County, West Virginia and Mason County, Illinois.
Mason was honored by the United States Postal Service with an 18¢ Great Americans series postage stamp. A bas-relief of Mason appears in the Chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives as one of 23 honoring great lawmakers; his image is located above and to the right of the Speaker's chair. The Society of Professional Journalists, Virginia Pro Chapter, presents an annual award named for Mason to a person who has made significant, lasting contribution to the practice of journalism in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
- History of the United States Constitution, slavery debate in Convention
- List of civil rights leaders
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- "George Mason's Views on Slavery"
- The Papers of George Mason 147-160 (Robert A. Rutland ed. 1970).
- This issue is further discussed in Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers (Knopf, 2000).
- Kaminski, John. Necessary Evil?: Slavery and the Debate Over the Constitution, pages 59 and 186 (Rowman & Littlefield 1995). Mason said: "The Western people are already calling out for slaves for their new lands; and will fill that country with slaves, if they can be got through South Carolina and Georgia....[T]he General Government should have the power to prevent the increase of slavery."
- See "Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention", The Founders’ Constitution (transcript from 1788-06-15). Mason said, "There is no clause in this Constitution to secure it; for they may lay such a tax as will amount to manumission." Madison responded: "From the mode of representation and taxation, Congress cannot lay such a tax on slaves as will amount to manumission....The census in the Constitution was intended to introduce equality in the burdens to be laid on the community."
- Broadwater, Jeff (2006). George Mason: Forgotten Founder. Chapel Hill, NC: Fred W. Morrison Fund for Southern Studies of the University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-3053-6.
- Rowland, Kate Mason (1892). The Life of George Mason, 1725–1792. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0-548-13895-8.
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- "Visiting Gunston Hall". Gunston Hall Plantation official website. Retrieved 2013-12-22.
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- Beckerdite, Luke et al. (1994). "Architect-Designed Furniture in Eighteenth-Century Virginia: The Work of William Buckland and William Bernard Sears". American Furniture 1994. Chipstone. Retrieved 2006-08-31.
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- "Parlor". House Tour. Gunston Hall Plantation official website. Archived from the original on 2006-07-13. Retrieved 2006-08-23.
- "Gunston Hall's Archeology Program". House and Grounds. Gunston Hall Plantation official website. p. 2. Archived from the original on 2006-07-14. Retrieved 2006-08-31.
- "Hollin Hall". George Mason's Plantations and Landholdings. Gunston Hall Plantation official website. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-02-29. Check date values in:
- "Relief Portraits of Lawgivers". Architect of the Capitol, Government of the United States of America. Accessed June 17, 2011.
- Davyd Foard Hood (May 1991). "Gunston Hall" (PDF). National Register of Historic Places - Nomination and Inventory. North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. Retrieved 2014-08-01.
- Bailyn, Bernard, ed. (1993). The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Anti federalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification, 2 vols. Library of America.
- Curtis, Barbara Jocelyn (1938). George Mason, Statesman, Rebel, Public Servant.
- Hawkes, Robert T., Jr. (1996). "An Uncommon American Hero: George Mason and The Bill Of Rights". Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine 1 (46): 5328–5338.
- Henriques, Peter R. (1989). "An Uneven Friendship: The Relationship Between George Washington and George Mason". Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 2 (97): 185–204.
- Jensen, Merrill et al., eds. (1976). The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution of the United States, 20 vols. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
- Ketcham, Ralph, ed. (1986). The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates. Penguin. ISBN 0-451-52884-0.
- Lee, Emery G. (1997). "Representation, Virtue, and Political Jealousy in the Brutus-Publius Dialogue". The Journal of Politics (Cambridge University Press) 59 (4): 1073–1095. doi:10.2307/2998593. JSTOR 2998593.
- Leffler, Richard (1987). "The Case of George Mason's Objections to the Constitution". Manuscripts 4 (39): 285–292.
- MacDonald, Robert (2008). "Mason, George (1725–1792)". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. p. 321. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024.
- Meltzer, Milton (1990). The Bill Of Rights: How We Got It and What It Means. New York: Thomas Crowell. ISBN 0-690-04805-X.
- Miller, Helen Hill (July 2001) . George Mason, Constitutionalist. Safety Harbor, FL: Simon Publications. ISBN 1-931313-45-8.
- Pole, J. R., ed. (1987). The American Constitution – For and Against: The Federalist And Anti-Federalist Papers. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 0-8090-2466-7.
- Rutland, Robert A. (September 1980). George Mason: Reluctant Statesman. ISBN 0-8071-0696-8.
- Rutland, Robert A., et al. eds. (1970). The papers of George Mason, 3 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Storing, Herbert, ed. (1985). The Anti-Federalist. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-77565-8.
- Storing, Herbert; Murray Dry, eds. (1981). The Complete Anti-Federalist 7 vol. University of Chicago Press.
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- Beach, Chandler B., ed. (1914). "Mason, George". The New Student's Reference Work. Chicago: F. E. Compton and Co.