George Mason – Forgotten Patriot

One of the truly great men in our American past seems to have been so completely overlooked that to many a schoolboy his name is unknown. He is George Mason, possibly the greatest intellectual libertarian of the entire revolutionary period.

George Mason, the fourth of his family to carry that name, was born in 1725.

George Mason was not a scion of an obscure frontiersman, such as was Lincoln's fate. He was the elder son of one of the wealthiest and most respected men in Fairfax County, Virginia, whose acres he inherited.

One hardly sees mention of Mason in our histories and political treatises, yet he should be well remembered. It was George Mason who drafted the Virginia Bill of Rights, the document which provided the pattern both for the American Declaration of Independence and for the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Rutland says of him: "Mason ... was the dean of the intellectual rebels in Virginia. The directness, the scholarly validity of his arguments belied the fact that he was not a lawyer. Logic born of a love affair with the classics gripped his mind when confusion seized others. Demagoguery was his chief irritant, integrity his palliative ... George Mason was a producer of ideas 'an 'egghead' in powdered wig and knee breeches. His ideas became permeating facts. No sooner today would we drop the Bill of Rights from our form of government than we would ignore the antibiotics that make such a tragic joke of eighteenth century medicine. Yet no one bothers much about who developed either."

There is a pair of keys to the inescapable fact that Mason, one of the most influential men who ever helped to form our way of life, is almost forgotten.

The first of these keys relates to his health. From thirty years of age onward, Mason was afflicted with that form of arthritis called gout. He was in intense pain month after month, and because of his pain developed a disposition which his friends called "stern," "unyielding" and "firm" and which others called "grouchy," "crusty," "intemperate" and even "impossible."

The second key relates to his firm belief in liberty which was of such intransigent character that he did not and would not voluntarily seek public office. While it is true that he did hold office on a couple of occasions, he never relished the job, did not seek it, accepted it with great reluctance, opposed most of the men who held office as contemporaries, and got out of the job and back to his plantation as quickly as possible.

His biographer calls him, knowingly, "the reluctant statesman." This is certainly what he was, a statesman of ideology rather than of political ambition.

It is unfortunately true that even in its early years, this country began to heap honors on its politicians and to avoid granting honors to men of far larger worth who scorned public power and prestige.

Such was the fate of Tom Paine, another great thinker who, with Mason, may have had clearer ideas than others of his time respecting the tyranny that can reside in places of power.

Mason is a man we should remember and revere, despite his "grouchy" exterior and possibly because of his unwillingness to be the typical politician.

His ideas of the rights of individuals as opposed to any presumed right on the part of bureaucrats gave this nation its distinctive character at the beginning. These ideas were openly copied by Jefferson, Patrick Henry and scores of others of the colonial period who drew on Mason's writings and statements as one might draw the purest water from the deepest well.

These ideas are still extant today, altho they are often buried beneath a welter of "dogoodism."

We might do well to remember Mason and his ideas considerably more than we have in the immediate past.

Virginia Bill of Rights

The Declaration of Independence is one of those rare documents of which there are all too few in this world. It is rare because it breathes the spirit of freedom. It is revolutionary, for it launches the concept of human rights in the new world and establishes clearly that individual man is superior to the state, however the state is organized.

Having considered the life of George Mason and commented briefly upon his contribution to early American thinking, it is only fitting to now quote from the Virginia Bill of Rights, which preceded the Declaration of Independence and our own Constitutional Bill of Rights, both of which leaned heavily on Mason's thinking.

The Virginia Bill of Rights obtained ratification in that state on June 12, 1776, and it was from this document that Thomas Jefferson drew when he wrote out the more general document to which the colonies subscribed with unanimity on July 4, 1776.

"Section 1. 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.

"Section 2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.

"Section 3. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

"Section 4. That no man, or set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary.

"Section 5. That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judiciary; and, that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burdens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections, in which all, or any part of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws shall direct."

There can be no question as to the fact that the first three sections inspired Jefferson in his task at Philadelphia. In certain respects this Virginia writing of Mason's is more to the point and less subject to misunderstanding than the general Declaration.

Particularly impressive is the first section, with the observation taken from John Locke's essay on government, that no men have a right to so contract or devise as to deprive or divest their posterity. In view of our own national debt, which cannot be paid in our lifetime, it is unfortunate that this particular observation was not included in the Declaration.

This also calls to mind some of the multitudinous laws which have been enacted and which have become binding on children yet unborn.

Additionally, the same section spells out the right to acquire and own property, a matter only hinted at in the Jefferson version.

Recurrence to Principles

The ensuing sections, drawn from the Virginia Bill of Rights, show clearly how this document served as the source of our own Bill of Rights, later adopted in 1791.

"Section 6. That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly, ought to be free; and that all men,
having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent, or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assembled, for the publick good.

"Section 7. That all power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws, by any authority, without consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights, and ought not to be exercised.

"Section 8. That in all capital or criminal prosecutions a man hath a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty, except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.

"Section 9. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

"Section 10. That general warrants, whereby an officer or messenger may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of a fact committed, or to seize any person or persons not named, or whose offense is not particularly described and supported by evidence, are grievous and oppressive, and ought not to be granted.

"Section 11. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other, and ought to be held sacred.

"Section 12. That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.

"Section 13. That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

"Section 14. That the people have a right to uniform government; and, therefore, that no government separate from, or independent of the government of Virginia, ought to be erected or established within the limits thereof.

"Section 15. That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

"Section 16. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other."

In some respects our own Bill of Rights is superior, and in some, inferior, to the Virginia Bill. It's appropriate during this month to quote from the writings of George Mason and to bring his contribution to American thinking to the fore.

The admonition to have "frequent recurrence to fundamental principles" is one of the things so often neglected. It is in hopes that such recurrence will take place that we have published this little known (outside of Virginia) document.

Consent" and "Just Powers"

"That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

This third sentence of the Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most significant of the entire document which occasions our remembrance of July 4th.

When the delegates at Philadelphia gathered in mid-1776 they were under a compulsion to explain to the rest of the world just what had been transpiring in the American colonies.

The people in our 13 states were up in arms. We were fighting our own king and his tax collectors. Yet, we had not sought to set up a rival power in the sense that is ordinarily supposed. The Continental Congress was not a government in any sense of the word, having no power to tax or to enforce. It could recommend, but so could every parish pastor.

When the delegates from each of the 13 colonies arrived in Philadelphia that year, it was for the purpose of examining the situation and trying to come up with some uniform views as to the reasons we were fighting and the objectives we hoped to attain.

After a relatively short period of study and debate, the Declaration was adopted unanimously – one of the few times in the history of this nation when all delegates to any assembly have been so thoroughly of one mind.

The sentence quoted above is crucial to our understanding of what was in the minds of our founders that early July day.

In the preceding utterances of the Declaration the concept of human rights had been enunciated. Now, the delegates were setting forth the purpose and the source of government. The purpose of the government is "to secure" these rights. The source of government is the "consent of the governed."

The word, secure, in 1776 had a simple meaning which was generally accepted as its sole meaning. To secure, meant to make safe, to nail down, to make fast. In our own time, the same word is used variously as meaning both to make safe and to obtain. It is obvious that to obtain and to retain are not the same. But no such complexities confused the delegates, in 1776. To secure meant to retain, and nothing more.

But "consent of the governed" – that is something else. It is a very tricky phrase for it conveys two things: the fact of government, which places the governed beneath the government; and the fact of consent, which means that government may not rise to its position of preeminence without the willing approval of those who are to sink beneath its weight.

Thinking of this sort had probably originated with John Locke, at least half a century earlier. And while Locke held to the idea that a majority could determine the course to be taken by society, he did not hold out the idea that a majority decision must, of necessity, become binding on the minority. Doubtless, the founders at this point were taking their cue from Locke and anticipating that a majority would "consent" to the idea of a central government. But there is no evidence whatever that those who drafted the Declaration ever intended that the minority which might NOT have approved of a particular form of government, would have to be coerced and cowed by a majority.

The use of the word "just" is clear enough. And the designation of "rights" as individually obtained from the Creator which appears earlier in the Declaration is rather good evidence that the founders anticipated that all the delegates might not concur; but those who did not, could retire in dignity and not be bound by the deliberations of the majority.

This is the major point of which we have lost sight. Since 1776 we have not only sought majority decisions, we have insisted that they be inflicted upon minorities. Can such a procedure ever be "just"? The Declaration specifically calls for "just powers."

This is a point well worth pondering on this July 4, 1963. Our freedom is too important a commodity for it to be lost thru default. And the default can so readily occur as a result of our unwillingness to think thru the meanings of our Declaration of Independence, our basic and most important paper.