One of the people most responsible for the Bill of Rights, ratified on this day in history, is generally forgotten in the invocation of our pantheon of Founders, and that is George Mason.
Jeff Broadwater has written a biography of Mason (George Mason: Forgotten Founder, 2006) in which he attempts to educate us not only on Mason’s role but on why it may not be as well-known as the roles of the other Founders.
Broadwater points out the following:
- Mason was a mentor to George Washington.
- Mason took the lead in drafting Virginia’s first state constitution and its famous Declaration of Rights, which influenced not only Thomas Jefferson (he adopted the second paragraph for the Declaration of Independence) but all constitution writers who followed.
- He was one of the most respected delegates to the Convention and had a great influence on the shape of the emerging government. (Notably, Mason shared Adams’ fear of unchecked government because he feared corruption in the political process.)
- Mason’s insistence at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 that a bill of rights be appended to the federal Constitution is routinely credited with initiating the movement that culminated in the first ten amendments, known as The Bill of Rights.
Why don’t we know more about Mason? Broadwater argues (1) Mason refused to sign the Constitution because he thought it failed to protect the interests of minorities, and because he could not in good conscience endorse the expansion of slavery (although he was not an abolitionist); (2) Mason died in 1792, and thus did not play a major role in the new government; and (3) Mason himself had a reluctance to seek the historical spotlight.
[On the matter of slavery, Mason was a slaveholder himself, but opposed it for economic reasons. His view was that land was being cleared and planted with tobacco faster than the market for it could expand, meaning that its price would drop even as more and more capital was tied up in land and slaves. Moreover, such a system would result in a huge future slave population in Virginia, which could only cause trouble.]
We owe him a great deal, however, and it is therefore appropriate we remember him on this anniversary of the nation’s adoption of the first ten amendments.
(Of the original twelve, Articles 3-12 were ratified. Accordingly, in 1791 these articles became the first ten amendments to the Constitution…..known collectively as The Bill of Rights.)
Here are the original twelve amendments as they appear in The Laws of The United States of America, printed by Richard Folwell, Philadelphia, in 1796.