Richard Brookhiser: Why George Mason didn't put his John Hancock on the Constitution

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Brookhiser is the author of "What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers" (2006)]

In 1953, the political scientist Clinton Rossiter ranked the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written in May 1776 largely by George Mason, "among the world's most memorable triumphs in applied political theory." Mason's handiwork influenced both the Declaration of Independence, which his young acquaintance Thomas Jefferson produced the following month, and the Bill of Rights, which his even younger acquaintance James Madison shepherded through Congress 14 years later. It was Mason's "genius," writes biographer Jeff Broadwater, "to express in scarcely two pages the ideology of the American Revolution."

Why then is he on the Founding Fathers' bench instead of on the first string? Mr. Broadwater's earnest and even-handed attempt to explain both Mason's genius and his present obscurity raises important questions about intellect and leadership, right thinking and right acting....

Early in May 1776 he was the main draftsman of a declaration of rights for his emerging state. The 11th article was a dry run of what would become the Eighth Amendment: "Excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The declaration of rights' opening flourish proclaimed that "all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights . . . among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty . . . and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety." Jefferson had Mason's words on his desk in Philadelphia as he took up his own writing assignment; his tweaks would make these words immortal, but Mason's first draft is very good.

Eleven years later, it was only natural that Virginia would send Mason to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Mason was an active delegate; perhaps his most eloquent speech denounced the slave trade. "Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a Country." Mason, as a slaveowner, knew whereof he spoke.

Yet when the convention ended, he was one of three delegates who refused to sign the new Constitution. The usual explanation for Mason's refusal is that he objected because it did not include a bill of rights. This was one reason, but Mr. Broadwater shows that there were others. Mason wanted the president to have a council of advisers--not to serve him, like the modern cabinet, but to check him. He wanted high hurdles to the passage of navigation laws that might hurt Southern trade. He supported sumptuary laws--laws controlling luxury and conspicuous consumption--to give America "manners" suitable to republican government. (No vulgar mansions in the Hamptons for the master of Gunston Hall.)...

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