George Mason: Forgotten Founder, He Conceived the Bill of Rights

This wise Virginian was a friend to four future presidents, yet he refused to sign the Constitution

George Mason
George Mason Wikimedia Commons

The air was cool and fresh on that Monday morning in September 1787 as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered at the State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia to sign the new Constitution. Only three present refused to add their names. One of them was the Virginian George Mason. Because the Constitution created a federal government he felt might be too powerful, and because it did not end the slave trade and did not contain a bill of rights, he withheld his support from the document he had played so large a role in crafting.

In 1776, Mason, then 51, had been appointed to a committee charged with drafting a "Declaration of Rights" for Virginia. From the writings of English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), Mason had come to a then-radical insight: that a republic had to begin with the formal, legally binding commitment that individuals had inalienable rights that were superior to any government.

One other committee member did play a significant role: Mason's young friend James Madison, who kept his (and Mason's) friend Thomas Jefferson apprised of Mason's progress in drafting the declaration. Mason's work began, "That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights...namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." Jefferson's U.S. Declaration of Independence included the immortal words of what may be the most famous political statement in history: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In 1787, toward the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Mason proposed that a bill of rights preface the Constitution, but his proposal was defeated. When he refused to sign the new Constitution, his decision baffled some and alienated others, including his old friend, George Washington. Mason's stand nonetheless had its effect. At the first session of the first Congress, Madison introduced a Bill of Rights that paralleled Mason's Declaration of Rights of 1776.

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