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George Mason

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There were three principal meetings that led to the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, and only two Virginians attended all three. The meetings were the Mount Vernon Conference of 1785, the Annapolis Convention of 1786 and the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. James Madison was one attendee, and he is well known as the Father of the Constitution and our fourth President. George Mason was the other, yet his name does not spring to mind. Does George Mason deserve the accolade "Founding Father?" This paper will explore the political life of Mason and attempt to answer the question affirmatively.

Before exploring Mason through his papers, his biographies and the papers of his contemporaries, it is necessary to decide what one must have done to be included in the list of our republic's founders. For purposes of this investigation, we must find that Mason's words or actions were influential in the document as finally ratified. While Mason's authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights is easily tied to the Bill of Rights, the question for this paper is whether Mason's handprints appear on the mold of our Constitution. Mason is well regarded as a political writer. "His three most brilliant papers - 'Extracts from the Virginia Charters', 'The Virginia Resolutions' and 'Declaration of Rights' have become immortalized as the very foundations of American democracy." Herbert Lawrence Ganter identified George Mason as an "eighteenth century champion of liberty for all." But these approbations are difficult to uncover. More commonly, one finds quotations such as "...the writings of the great thinkers of the age - Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Adams..."

To adequately examine George Mason, a brief review of his pre-convention life and activities helps set up his provenance as a founding father. George Mason, the fourth so named in this lineage, was born about 1725. His father drowned during a squall while crossing the Potomac in 1735. His education was at the hand of his paternal uncle and co-guardian John Mercer of Marlborough who had "...assembled one of the outstanding libraries in the colony..." Mercer's collection was heavily weighted toward law and legal treatises but contained the currently popular classic literature as well as works on philosophy, mathematics and science. Notwithstanding his services to the town of Alexandria, Virginia and his brief stints in the Virginia House of Burgesses, Mason's first major contribution to the American political literature was a plan he conceived to thwart the effect of the unpopular Stamp Act of 1765. This work by Mason is cited often in the literature, although the reason for its inclusion appears to be his tirade renouncing the tradition of slavery. However, beyond a brief mention of the evils of slavery in the opening paragraph, the true value of this document is the description of a scheme to avoid Stamp Act taxation while retaining security in bonds and rents. This intricate plan was never implemented as the Stamp Act was repealed shortly afterward.

The British Parliament adopted the Townshend Acts 1767, the colonies responded by adopting non-importation associations, and George Mason's hand was to be found in those documents. The Virginia Nonimportation Resolutions were modeled after the original resolve of Philadelphia merchants. Scholars argue over whether this was the sole work of Mason, or whether he merely served on the committee. Nevertheless, on April 5th, 1769, George Washington forwarded copies of the Philadelphia resolution to George Mason. That same day, George Mason dispatched his reply to Washington, expressing Mason's thoughts at implementation of the plan. The important element of this exchange is that Mason was already in possession of the plan when Washington forwarded duplicates. Mason explained that he was "...inclosing the Resolves of the Merchts. in Philadelphia &c. which...I had before recd. Duplicates of them from our Friend the Doctor." Problems with the Crown continued, and in response to the Tea Party in 1773, Parliament passed the Boston Port Bill. Responding to requests for aid from Massachusetts, prominent Virginians in Fairfax County assembled to consider what could be done. In addition to providing relief in the form of goods, Fairfax County decided to issues a series of resolves. George Washington, in his capacity as chairman of the meeting and a member of the committee selected to draft the resolves appointed George Mason the task of drafting these potentially treasonous statements of resolve. Although taken by themselves the Fairfax County Resolves seem less than important, their significance lies in the hand of George Mason whose political thoughts are expressed there. These resolutions cleared the path for the Virginia Convention in Richmond in 1775, the formation of the Continental Congress and the adoption of Jefferson's masterpiece, the Declaration of Independence.

Mason continued to be involved in local government movements which were opposed to the activities of the Crown. Having made the resolution, Fairfax County once again assembled, this time with George Mason as chair, and formed the Fairfax County Militia Association, the first such company to be established on the continent. While Mason seemed comfortable with his public service on a local basis, the death of his wife Ann Eilbeck Mason in 1773 had left him with nine motherless children, ranging in age from twenty to three years. When George Washington vacated his position in the Virginia Convention to serve as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Mason was approached to fill his post as a deputy of Fairfax County. His letter of regret, dated July 11, 1775 and postmarked Gunston Hall, reads in part: "I entreat you, Sir, to reflect on the duty I owe to a poor little helpless family of orphans to whom I now must act the part of father and mother both..." His regrets were for naught, as Mason served as a deputy from Fairfax County in the Virginia Convention held in Williamsburg in July 1775. His service continued through the next year, when independence was at the forefront of political thought. The convention, which included such Virginia political luminaries as Patrick Henry, James Madison and Edmund Randolph, in fact passed a resolution calling on the Virginia delegates to Congress to declare independence. A second resolution "...appointed a committee to prepare a declaration of rights and a plan of government 'as will be most likely to maintain peace and order in the colony, and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people.'" The committee considered plans submitted by John Adams, Carter Braxton and Thomas Jefferson. The chosen author was George Mason.

Mason has been identified



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