A Biography of George Mason 1725-1792

The Virginia Bill of Rights

But the most significant contribution Mason made to the fledgling state government was writing a constitution and bill of rights during a six week period in May and June of 1776. Mason's readings in history had convinced him that "there never was a government over a very extensive country without destroying the liberties of the people," and he sought to remedy that with a declaration of rights. A committee was assigned to do the writing, but except for Madison's insertion of stronger wording on freedom of religion, the words are entirely Mason's. Some of Mason's phrases appear in the U.S. Bill of Rights that passed 15 years later. The idea as well as the wording caught on, and by the end of 1776 five colonies had adopted declarations of rights, and by 1783 every state had some form of a bill of rights.

Mason's hand was clearly the guiding force behind this process. Edmund Pendleton, president of the Virginia Assembly, wrote to Jefferson, who was in Philadelphia working on the Declaration of Independence, that "the political cooks are busy in preparing the dish, and as Colonel Mason seems to have the ascendancy in the great work, I have sanguine hopes it will be framed so as to answer its end."

Edmund Randolph said that of all the plans being discussed, "those proposed by George Mason swallowed up all the rest." Nearly 50 years later, Jefferson added, "the fact is unquestionable that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of Virginia were drawn originally by George Mason."

The Declaration of Rights was approved by the Assembly on June 12,1776, and 17 days later Mason had a final draft of the state constitution approved by that body. Although he remained in the legislature four more years and influenced nearly all major bills, Mason never made a more important contribution than authoring the first American document that limited the authority of governments and strengthened the rights of individuals.

By 1780, Mason felt the new government was on firm foundation and he could safely leave of fice. In that year, he remarried and retired to Gunston Hall, letting it be known that he would consider any effort to draft him back into the legislature as "an oppressive and unjust invasion of my personal liberty."

But Mason was too respected, important, and opinionated to stay retired. At first, he spoke out from Gunston Hall on certain issues. In particular, he felt that American debts to British merchants should be honored, as the Revolution had not been fought merely to elude creditors.

Since Gunston Hall was located on the road from Richmond to Philadelphia, leaders on the way from one capital to another began to stop and seek Mason's counsel. In 1783, when debate was going on over revising the Articles of Confederation, the wisest minds sought to involve Mason again. Jefferson wrote to Madison asking if he had stopped by Gunston Hall on his way home from the Continental Congress:

"You have seen G. M., I hope, and had much conversation with him. What are his sentiments on the amendment of our constitution? What amendments would he approve? Is he determined to sleep on, or will he rouse and be active?"

Madison replied,

"I took Colonel Mason in my way and had an evening's conversation with him . . . on the article of convention for revising our form of government, he was sound and ripe and I think would not decline participation in such a work."
Shortly afterward, Mason was part of a panel that negotiated a Potomac navigation agreement between Virginia and Maryland, which served as a sign that cooperation between states could be achieved and that Mason was ready to come out of retirement.