A Biography of George Mason 1725-1792


The Bill of Rights received a lot of attention during its recent 200th anniversary, but little recognition was given to George Mason, who was the driving force behind the document. Mason (1725-1792) was the author of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, which the Marquis de Condorcet called "the first Bill of Rights to merit the name." Mason fought against ratification of the United States Constitution because it contained no bill of rights. As a leader of the AntiFederalists, his objections led to the first 10 amendments, which were ratified in 1791.

Mason is relatively unknown among the Founders, but his intellect was renowned as one of the finest in the Colonies. In fact, Thomas Jefferson called Mason "the wisest man of his generation." Fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph added: "He was behind none of the sons of Virginia in knowledge of her history and interest. At a glance, he saw to the bottom of every proposition which affected her." James Madison praised Mason as "a powerful reasoner, a profound statesman, and a devoted republican."

That this plantation owner and neighbor of George Washington was not well-known outside his native Virginia was due to his reluctance to become involved in politics. Mason had a distaste for committee work and a contempt for what he called the "babblers" who predominated in politics. In his will he advised his heirs to prefer "the happiness and independence [of] a private station to the troubles and vexations of public business" unless "the necessity of the times should engage them in public affairs."

Mason turned down appointments to the Continental Congress and the U.S. Senate, but the needs of his turbulent times did cause him to leave home on two significant occasions. From 1775 to 1780, he served reluctantly in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he took a leading role in every aspect of formulating a new state government and almost single-handedly wrote the state constitution and the Declaration of Rights. The second occasion was in 1787, when Mason was persuaded to leave his native state to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Here he was one of the five most frequent speakers, arguing passionately for individual freedoms and against centralized governmental authority. His prescient objections ring no less true today, and his refusal to sign the final document helped bring attention to the need for a bill of rights.