The American statesman George Mason (1725-1792) wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights and persistently advocated safeguarding the rights of individuals during the formative years of the republic.
George Mason was born in Virginia, son of a wealthy planter. He inherited several large estates along the Potomac River and became a friend and neighbor of George Washington. He married Ann Eilbeck in 1750 and soon was performing the tasks incumbent on a gentleman planter—justice of the peace, vestryman, and county delegate in the House of Burgesses. He speculated in land and became expert in colonial land law. In 1773 he became a widower with nine children. Despondent for months, he turned his attention to the growing Revolutionary crisis. A year later his Fairfax Resolves set the tone for Virginia's resistance to British domination.
Mason preferred to advise statesmen rather than be one. He served in the 1775 Virginia convention and so impressed fellow delegates that he was selected to the Continental Congress delegation. He declined to serve, as he steadfastly avoided higher offices in his reluctant role as a Revolutionary statesman.
At the 1776 Virginia convention Mason's drafts of the Declaration of Rights and the constitution emerged as models for other colonies turned states. Though ill, Mason was hardworking and helped write key legislation in the state assembly. Between 1776 and 1780 his bills for western land sales were designed to erase the public debt. In 1780 he outlined a plan which evolved into the western land cession act that eventually created the Northwest Territory.
Mason remarried and after the Revolution turned to his family and his fields. At the urging of friends he served at the Mount Vernon Convention of 1785 but avoided the Annapolis Convention. He went to the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787, convinced that the Revolution and "the Formations of our new Governments at that time, were nothing compared to the great Business now before us". Though some of his suggestions in the Federal Constitutional Convention seemed to favor southern interests, his attack on slave importation showed that he could place humanitarianism beyond local concerns.
Many details in the approved Constitution, such as the mandatory origin of tax bills in the House, bore testimony to Mason's persistence. He refused to sign the Constitution, however, and worked indefatigably for its revision prior to a final ratification. He and Patrick Henry almost brought the ratification process to a standstill in Virginia, but after the Federal Bill of Rights was adopted, Mason conceded that with a few more alterations "I could chearfully put my hand & heart to the new government." He died at his plantation home, Gunston Hall, on Oct. 7, 1792.
The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1796 was edited by Robert A. Rutland (3 vols., 1970). There is no thorough study of Mason's life. The standard work is Kate Mason Rowland, The Life of George Mason (1892). Interpretive studies are Helen Hill [Miller], George Mason: Constitutionalist (1938), and Robert A. Rutland, George Mason: Reluctant Statesman (1961).
Rutland, Robert Allen, George Mason and the War for Independence, Williamsburg, Va.: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1976.
Rutland, Robert Allen, George Mason, reluctant statesman, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980 1961.