Jeff Broadwater desires to revive the reputation of George Mason, whose talents and contributions to American political ideas and practice were widely acknowledged during his lifetime but since then have been largely overlooked by all except specialists in early American history. It is not a negative comment to note that the fifty-one pages of endnotes to this gracefully written scholarly biography almost exclusively cite printed sources. The past forty years have seen an outpouring of elaborate documentary collections dealing with colonial and revolutionary history and subtle and informative monographs analyzing eighteenth century political thought and action. Broadwater makes effective use of these works in the first full-scale biography of Mason since Helen Hill Miller’s excellent 1975 volume.
Mason’s life and accomplishments deserve careful study for what one can learn about both the achievements of the revolutionary generation and the unresolved contradictions in their ideas, especially in regard to slavery.
Mason’s father died when he was ten; he was reared by a mother who prudently managed the family holdings and a lawyer uncle who gave his nephew free access to a fifteen hundred volume library, one of the largest in the colonies. Along with literary classics and major contributions to British political thought, one-third of the collection dealt with law. Studying these books was the most important part of Mason’s education. During his lifetime Mason’s legal opinions were respectfully acknowledged by his neighbors even though he never practiced as a lawyer. When he reached his majority Mason took control of an estate consisting of five thousand acres in Fairfax County, Virginia. Ninety slaves, working four separate tracts of four hundred to five hundred acres each, kept the plantation largely self-sufficient while growing tobacco to pay for imported luxuries. Like most wealthy Virginians Mason served on the parish vestry, governing local affairs, and as a justice of the county court, deciding both criminal cases and civil lawsuits.
When Mason’s friend and neighbor George Washington wanted a method of legally ignoring the 1765 Stamp Act, he turned to Mason for a planwhich was never implemented because Britain quickly abandoned the tax. Following British adoption of the Townshend Duties in 1769, Mason drafted a nonimportation agreement designed to disrupt trade between Britain and the colonies and lead British merchants to support the American cause. Washington brought the plan to a meeting of the former House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, which approved and forwarded it to the rest of the colonies.
In July, 1774, reacting to the closing of the port of Boston and other Coercive Acts by Britain, Mason composed a series of resolutions challenging Parliament’s authority over the colonies that were adopted by the freeholders of Fairfax County. Carried by Washington, they were largely endorsed by the Virginia Convention and in part by the Continental Congress. Other counties passed similar resolves, but Broadwater claims that Mason’s Fairfax Resolves were the most detailed, the most radical, and therefore the most influential.
Mason’s finest hour and greatest contribution to American political thought and government was his work at the May, 1776, Virginia Conventions. When he arrived, nearly two weeks late, the delegates had already unanimously declared Virginia independent and Mason was immediately put on the committee to prepare a constitution for the new republic. Mason wrote the initial drafts of both the constitution and the declaration of rights with which he prefaced it. The constitution embodied generally accepted eighteenth century American political ideas, providing separation of executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government and creating a powerful lower house of legislature dominant over a weak governor. Creating a list of civil rights as a separate and privileged part of a constitution was a new concept.
Mason’s original draft of the declaration beganThat all Men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity; among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.
Thomas Jefferson condensed Mason’s draft into the opening of the Declaration of Independence. However, Mason’s powerful proclamation of human freedom was too strong for...
(The entire section is 1866 words.)