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George Mason was an eighteenth-century statesperson who in 1776 wrote the Declaration of Rights for the State of Virginia and who later helped write the U.S. Constitution. Mason was a champion of liberty whose opposition to Slavery and a strong federal government led him to refuse to sign the Constitution.
Mason was born on October 7, 1725, in Fairfax County, Virginia, the son of a wealthy commercial and agricultural family. Mason studied law but was primarily a plantation owner and real estate speculator. He was a neighbor of George Washington. Mason was deeply interested in western expansion, and in 1749 he became a member of the Ohio Company, which developed land and trade on the upper Ohio River.
"Our all is at stake, and the little conveniences and comforts of life, when set in competition with our liberty, ought to be rejected not with reluctance but with pleasure."
At about this time, Mason helped found the city of Alexandria, Virginia. Because he suffered from chronic poor health, Mason avoided public office, serving only a short time in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Yet he did not shun the political debate over British interference with the colonies. British attempts at taxing and controlling the colonies through the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts led many colonial leaders to consider political independence.
In 1775 Mason attended the Virginia convention, where he helped write most of the Virginia constitution. In June 1776 he wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Thomas Jefferson was probably familiar with Mason's concepts and language when he wrote the Declaration of Independence later that year, and other states soon copied Mason's work. French revolutionaries also showed they had been influenced by Mason's declaration in their Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was composed in 1789.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights stated that government derived from the people, that individuals were created equally free and independent, and that they had inalienable rights that the government could not legitimately deny them.
As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Mason was called on to write part of the first draft. By the end of the convention, however, he had become deeply alienated by the result. Although he came from a slaveholding state, Mason opposed slavery on both moral and economic grounds. He sought an end to the slave trade and the manumission of all slaves. Instead, the Constitution allowed the slave trade to continue for twenty years, and it said nothing about the institution of slavery.
Mason also objected to the lack of provision for individual rights, believing that the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government. His criticism contributed to the enactment and ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, portions of which were modeled on Mason's Declaration of Rights.
Mason died on October 7, 1792, at his estate in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Pacheco, Josephine F., ed. 1983. The Legacy of George Mason. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason Univ. Press.