In 1725 George Mason was born to George and Ann Thomson
Mason. When the boy was 10 years old his father died,
and young George's upbringing was left in the care of
his uncle, John Mercer. The future jurist's education
was profoundly shaped by the contents of his uncle's
1500-volume library, one-third of which concerned the
Mason established himself as an important figure in
his community. As owner of Gunston Hall he was one of
the richest planters in Virginia. In 1750 he married
Anne Eilbeck, and in 23 years of marriage they had five
sons and four daughters. In 1752 he acquired an interest
in the Ohio Company, an organization that speculated
in western lands. When the crown revoked the company's
rights in 1773, Mason, the company's treasurer, wrote
his first major state paper, Extracts from the Virginia
Charters, with Some Remarks upon Them.
During these years Mason also pursued his political
interests. He was a justice of the Fairfax County court,
and between 1754 and 1779 Mason was a trustee of the
city of Alexandria. In 1759 he was elected to the Virginia
House of Burgesses. When the Stamp Act of 1765 aroused
outrage in the colonies, George Mason wrote an open
letter explaining the colonists' position to a committee
of London merchants to enlist their support.
In 1774 Mason again was in the forefront of political
events when he assisted in drawing up the Fairfax Resolves,
a document that outlined the colonists' constitutional
grounds for their objections to the Boston Port Act.
Virginia's Declaration of Rights, framed by Mason in
1776, was widely copied in other colonies, served as
a model for Jefferson in the first part of the Declaration
of Independence, and was the basis for the federal Constitution's
Bill of Rights.
The years between 1776 and 1780 were filled with great
legislative activity. The establishment of a government
independent of Great Britain required the abilities
of persons such as George Mason. He supported the disestablishment
of the church and was active in the organization of
military affairs, especially in the West. The influence
of his early work, Extracts from the Virginia Charters,
is seen in the 1783 peace treaty with Great Britain,
which fixed the Anglo-American boundary at the Great
Lakes instead of the Ohio River. After independence,
Mason drew up the plan for Virginia's cession of its
western lands to the United States.
By the early 1780s, however, Mason grew disgusted with
the conduct of public affairs and retired. He married
his second wife, Sarah Brent, in 1780. In 1785 he attended
the Mount Vernon meeting that was a prelude to the Annapolis
convention of 1786, but, though appointed, he did not
go to Annapolis.
At Philadelphia in 1787 Mason was one of the five most
frequent speakers at the Constitutional Convention.
He exerted great influence, but during the last 2 weeks
of the convention he decided not to sign the document.
Mason's refusal prompts some surprise, especially since
his name is so closely linked with constitutionalism.
He explained his reasons at length, citing the absence
of a declaration of rights as his primary concern. He
then discussed the provisions of the Constitution point
by point, beginning with the House of Representatives.
The House he criticized as not truly representative
of the nation, the Senate as too powerful. He also claimed
that the power of the federal judiciary would destroy
the state judiciaries, render justice unattainable,
and enable the rich to oppress and ruin the poor. These
fears led Mason to conclude that the new government
was destined to either become a monarchy or fall into
the hands of a corrupt, oppressive aristocracy.
Two of Mason's greatest concerns were incorporated
into the Constitution. The Bill of Rights answered his
primary objection, and the 11th amendment addressed
his call for strictures on the judiciary.
Throughout his career Mason was guided by his belief
in the rule of reason and in the centrality of the natural
rights of man. He approached problems coolly, rationally,
and impersonally. In recognition of his accomplishments
and dedication to the principles of the Age of Reason,
Mason has been called the American manifestation of
the Enlightenment. Mason died on October 7, 1792, and
was buried on the grounds of Gunston Hall.
(National Archives and Records Administration)