Why George Mason Matters


Mr. Broadwater is the author of George Mason, Forgotten Founder (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

If George Mason has not been literally forgotten, he is at best only dimly remembered. Why the lapse into relative obscurity of a man Thomas Jefferson placed in “the first order of greatness?” The reasons are many. Mason did not seek the spotlight. He made no apparent effort to preserve his papers, and he did not leave behind the mounds of documents that have attracted historians to his better known contemporaries. There was, moreover, something nebulous about his accomplishments. They fall for the most part in the category of “influencing,” or "supporting," or at best serving as “the principal author of” some historic document that was overshadowed by some even more memorable state paper. Mason never crossed the Delaware, at least not in combat. The drama in his life was mainly intellectual.

Mason’s philosophy may discourage potential disciples. As Joseph Ellis has suggested of John Adams, Mason can be an uncomfortable founder to have around. He distrusted government at all levels, which ought to give pause to his liberal admirers, but conservatives, who tend to be more appreciative, should beware. Mason was not an uncritical advocate of commercial capitalism. Libertarianism might fit him as well as any modern pigeonhole, but he worried about corruption in government and in the marketplace precisely because governments and markets are composed of individuals, and he knew individuals could not be left wholly unsupervised.

His support of sumptuary laws, which banned conspicuous consumption and ostentatious displays of wealth, illustrates the gap between Mason and us. He believed that luxury undermined the civic virtue on which republican governments rested. When Fairfax County considered building a new courthouse, Mason proposed moving the county seat from Alexandria to the countryside. He dismissed complaints from the city’s merchants, who were worried about the loss of business. “Compelling the People to spend their money and their time in tripling houses and Taverns,” he wrote, “is not worth encouraging.” Today we hand out tax rebates for similar purposes.

Mason may have been overlooked in part because of the way Americans remember, or more correctly misrember—their history. He is best known as an Anti-Federalist, one of Cecelia Kenyon’s “men of little faith” who opposed the United States Constitution. They lost, and for decades, historians in the Triumph-of-Democracy school of historical writing skipped quickly over the losers in their path. In recent years, of course, historians have begun to resurrect marginalized figures, but Mason, unfortunately, remains dead, white, male, and worse yet, rich. Those character flaws do not seem to faze the general reader—hence “Founders chic’--but they do put him beyond the pale of many serious academic historians concerned, reasonably enough, with questions of race, class, and gender.

But he is not alone in the dim mists of collective memory. Apart from the half dozen giants of the Founding era, how well known are any of Mason’s compatriots? Before George Mason, Forgotten Founder appeared, Marty Matthews had published Forgotten Founder: The Life and Times of Charles Pinckney (2004), and why shouldn’t we expect to see in the not to distant future John Dickinson, Forgotten Revolutionary or Roger Sherman, Forgotten Architect of the Constitution? Because we can only remember so much, they and Mason have all suffered from an almost inevitable neglect.

With all these obstacles to remembering, why, in George Mason’s case should we make the effort?

To begin with, his contemporaries thought he was important. The excitable Phillip Mazzei ranked him alongside Newton and Galileo as one of the giants of Western civilization. Georgia’s William Pierce, who served with Mason at the Constitutional Convention, described him as “one of the best politicians in America.”

And for good reason. During the controversy over the Townshend Duties, he helped organize a non-importation movement to protest British taxes. He wrote the influential Fairfax Resolves calling for the convening of a continental congress and for the creation of local committees to enforce a boycott of British goods. He drafted Virginia’s first state constitution, but his most enduring achievement during the Revolution was the Virginia Declaration of Rights. As the first state bill of rights, it became a model for bills of rights in other states and influenced the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. It also influenced the Declaration of Independence. Mason was something of a mentor to Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson took much of the famous second paragraph of the Declaration from Mason.

Mason returned again to the historical center stage when he served as a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Mason went to Philadelphia in May 1787 convinced that the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced with a new system that would give Congress more power, including the power to police the states. He urged his fellow delegates to compromise on the thorny issue of representation in Congress, and he said at one point that he would rather bury his bones in Philadelphia than return to Virginia without reaching an agreement on a new form of government.

But Mason’s commitment to the process waned as the summer dragged on. He distrusted the new institutions—the presidency, the Senate, and the federal courts—the Constitution created. Mason chafed when the convention refused to end the foreign slave trade immediately, and most famously his proposal to add a bill of rights to the Constitution lost by a unanimous vote. But it was the convention’s decision to allow a simple majority to adopt commercial regulations that most irritated Mason. He feared a Northern majority would impose restrictions burdensome to southern planters.

Once the debate over ratification began, Mason’s position seemed to harden. Among the most intellectually imposing of the Anti-Federalists, he nevertheless cut a less impressive figure in the Virginia ratifying convention than he had in Philadelphia. But his opposition contributed to the movement for a Bill of Rights, and he received a measure of vindication when the first ten amendments were added to the Constitution.

Mason distrusted politicians, but, despite his skepticism about human nature, he never lost faith in the people. When the revolutionary elite began to complain about the quality of men entering the Virginia assembly after the Revolution, Mason blamed the problem on low voter turnout; he proposed penalizing non-voters. To borrow a line from Al Smith, his cure for the evils of democracy was more democracy. Arguing in Philadelphia for the direct election of the House of Representatives, he said he had often wondered at “the indifference of the superior classes” to the legitimate interests of the less fortunate since time “not only might but certainly would, distribute their posterity throughout the lowest classes of society.”

Why bother with Mason? He stood at the center of the critical events of a critical era, and he gives us a perspective from which to better understand it all. It is a slightly different perspective, one that affords a richer and fuller picture, because it was ultimately, a view from the margins of the mainstream.

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More Comments:

Sally Gee - 3/6/2008

I second Mr Williamson's comments. Mr Broadwater's book seems well worth reading.

Harvey Williamson - 3/6/2008

I would like to know more about George Mason's stance on the Constitution. Was he distrustful of the structure of the new federal government itself? Or was he more concerned with the lack of a Bill of Rights?

I would like to read some of his writings as an antifederalist. Mr. Mason seems to be one our founding enigmas.