George Mason

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason also had a major role in shaping the Virginia constitution of 1776 and the United States Constitution.

Early Life

George Mason was born in the year 1725, on the family’s plantation on Dogue’s Neck (modern Fairfax County, along the Potomac River). His father, the third George Mason, drowned in a ferry accident when Mason was ten years old. His mother, Ann Thomson Mason, then took the family to her dower plantation, Chopawamsic, south of the Occoquan River. Along with his mother, his uncle-in-law, lawyer John Mercer of Marlborough, became a coguardian of Mason. The small clergymen’s schools of the time afforded what formal education Mason received. Unlike many of the gentry’s sons, he never attended the College of William and Mary or studied in England. Making use of his uncle’s extensive library, however, Mason became learned in the law.

Mason married Ann Eilbeck on April 4, 1750. In the 1750’s, Gunston Hall, which still stands in Fairfax County, Virginia, was completed, with architect William Buckland responsible for the distinctive quality of the interior decoration.

Throughout his life, Mason was reluctant to enter into the limelight. Nevertheless, on occasion he accepted public office and exercised leadership in the community. Although losing in a race for a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1748, Mason was successful ten years later, serving as a burgess from 1758 to 1761. Like other gentry, he had long served as a justice of the peace and a vestryman. From 1749 to 1779, Mason was an active partner in the Ohio Company, although the efforts of the company to retain vast land holdings in the Ohio Valley came to naught. He also championed internal improvements, and, along with George Washington, had a major role in founding a company for improvement of Potomac River navigation.

Mason became involved with the Revolutionary movement, although staying mainly behind the scenes. His first published document was Scheme for Replevying Goods and Distress for Rent (1765), which carried a denunciation of slavery. During the Stamp Act crisis, he helped to prepare the text of an agreement adopted by an association formed in the colony to boycott trade with Great Britain. In 1766, he published in the London Public Ledger a long letter, signed “A Virginia Planter,” which was a reply to a memorial of London merchants, in which Mason makes a distinction between legislation and taxation in reference to parliamentary authority. Mason also helped write the Virginia resolutions of 1769, denouncing the Townshend duties, and he had a leading role at that time in the reforming of the colony’s nonimportation association. In 1773, Mason wrote Extracts from the Virginia Charters, in defense of Western land claims, which was used in defining boundaries in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.

Mason’s first wife died on March 9, 1773; in 1780, he married Sarah Brent. His reluctance to enter public life was owing in part to ill health; he suffered from gout and erysipelas. Nevertheless, Mason assumed leadership in his county with the coming of the resistance movement in 1774, in response to Parliament’s Coercive Acts. He wrote the celebrated Fairfax Resolves, which was accepted by both the Virginia Convention and the Continental Congress. He was also the author of the nonimportation resolves, endorsed by the Virginia House of Burgesses and which also formed the basis for the Continental Association established by the Continental Congress. Mason served in the Virginia Conventions of 1775-1776 and was a member of the colony’s committee of safety, which operated as an executive board to run the colony. Although adopting his father’s title of colonel, Mason eschewed any military participation; he did, however, help organize the Fairfax County independent company at the start of the war.

Life’s Work

Mason’s early claim to fame rests on his drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights, passed by the Virginia Convention in the summer of 1776, and preparing a draft document, which along with that of Jefferson provided the content for the Virginia constitution. As a member of the House of Delegates (1777-1781), Mason had a key role in the assembly’s creation of a land office for the disposal of Western lands, and his plans formed the basis of the new United States policies governing the public domain. Also as a delegate, Mason was one of a committee of five which worked on a bill to disestablish religion in Virginia, becoming a legislative enactment in 1786. In 1785, Mason, at the Mount Vernon Conference, helped negotiate the agreement between Maryland and Virginia on the navigation of the Potomac.

Although preferring private to public happiness, Mason was persuaded, after several other appointees bowed out, to be a member of the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional...

(The entire section is 2039 words.)