A wealthy landowner and patriot of the Founding generation, is a name that is largely forgotten in the annals of American history. During his time, though, he was considered an intellectual peer of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in his home state of Virginia. His contributions toward preserving individual rights and constructing the United States government were immense and worthy of acknowledgment.
Mason strongly believed in representative government, individual liberties, and state sovereignty. In fact, he held that they all went hand in hand. Mason reasoned that the large, faraway British government threatened local rights. This served to motivate his role in the radical Virginia Committee of Correspondence. Preceding the Revolutionary War, this committee “corresponded” with committees from other colonies in opposing objectionable British actions against the colonies. They organized boycotts of British imports in response to harsh taxes. In 1774, Mason and Patrick Henry penned the Fairfax Resolves, outlining the colonists’ anti-taxation stances and laying out much of the philosophical foundations for colonial independence from the Crown.
Declaration of Rights
Mason’s most notable contribution to American History came during the Revolution as Virginia was setting up an independent government. From his extensive readings of history, Mason became convinced that “there never was a government over a very extensive country without destroying the liberties of the people.” Mason sought a cure for that problem by laying out a declaration of rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, passed by the Virginia Assembly on June 12, 1776, inspired duplicate efforts in the remaining colonies by 1783. It was the first American document both limiting the authority of government and strengthening the rights of individuals.
Many passages and ideas from the Declaration of Rights were lifted for use in the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the U.S. Bill of Rights. The philosophical premise of natural rights in man was a common feature of both the Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, laid out in the beginning of each. Mason stated that mankind is “by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights.” People are equal in their rights to “life and liberty … [and] acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness,” Mason claimed. Jefferson echoed as much in the Declaration of Independence.
Mason also thought that governments are established for the common good and protection of the people, in whom “all power is vested in, and consequently derived from.” As Jefferson later affirmed, Mason also asserted that whenever a government contradicted its set purpose or violated the inherent rights of its constituents, “a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it.”
Though Mason would eventually become a chief critic and opponent of the United States Constitution, he played a huge part in its final structure. Again, his Declaration of Rights had a large influence on the document, especially as it pertained to the separation of powers between the different branches of government: the executive, legislative, and judiciary. In Mason’s view, however, the new constitution did not go far enough in keeping the branches separate or in protecting individual rights and local interests.
Mason was a key member of Virginia’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. After Madison and James Wilson, Mason spoke the most often during debates at the Convention. He passionately advocated popular election of the lower house of Congress and the right to impeach corrupt presidents. He was an early advocate of term limits. Mason also strongly opposed any measure that would “abolish the State governments, or render them absolutely insignificant.” He therefore advocated selection of senators by state legislators.
Despite his relative success in these areas, Mason believed the Constitution did little to protect citizens’ rights and much to put them in jeopardy. He viewed the “necessary and proper” clause, or elastic clause, as an ambiguous an undefined provision that would be subject to abuse. He wrote that through the elastic clause, “the state Legislatures have no Security for their Powers now presumed to remain to them, or the People for their Rights.” Mason’s late call for a bill of rights near the end of the Convention (he even volunteered to write it himself) was rejected. He decided to oppose the Constitution, even though his opposition brought to an end his long friendship with George Washington.
Mason and the Bill of Rights
Mason described the flaws in the document in a three-page list of “Objections to This Constitution of Government.” At first hand-written, it ultimately was published by newspapers and in pamphlets throughout the Union as the clarion call of the anti-federalists. Mason began his list of objections with a simple but powerful statement: “There is no Declaration of Rights.” He saw the stronger Federal government as a threat to individual rights — one that was superior, or “paramount,” to the States. Therefore, claimed Mason, the Federal Constitution gave “no security” to the “Declarations of Rights in the separate States.”
This first statement placed the federalists on the defensive throughout much of the ratification debate, with Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Madison arguing that a bill of rights was not needed. They believed that the Federal government was not given the power to act outside of the enumerated, or listed, powers written into the Constitution. Ultimately, though, the anti-federalist opposition faded and the Constitution was ratified, with the understanding that Madison and the first Congress would consider a bill of rights. True to his word and with Washington’s support — and the reality of political pressure in favor of a national bill of rights — Madison offered twelve amendments to the U.S. Constitution as the first act of the new Congress. Ten would be ratified, becoming the United States Bill of Rights. One of the remaining two was later incorporated into the Constitution in 1992 as the Twenty-Seventh Amendment.
Not only did Mason’s insistence on a declaration of rights help ensure that the U.S. Constitution would include the Bill of Rights, but many ideas from the Virginia Declaration of Rights were included in it. Elements from the Virginia Declaration are found in the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments. Specifically, the Declaration included clauses defending the free exercise of religion, “a speedy trial by an impartial jury of his vicinage (i.e. peers from where the accused is from),” and freedom of the press. Of the last, Mason wrote, “the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”
The Declaration of Rights also prohibited general warrants and mandated specific search warrants in criminal cases. It protected the accused from self-incrimination, excessive bail, fines, and “cruel and unusual punishments.” Standing armies in times of peace were prohibited, with a “well-regulated militia … the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state.” Madison included all these provisions in the Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment’s reservation of unenumerated powers to the states or to the people may be attributed to an effort to placate the anti-federalists, as well.
Following the news in September 1787 that a bill of rights had passed the House of Representatives, Mason offered his praise and approval. At long last, he wrote, “I could cheerfully put my Hand & Heart to the new government.”