George Mason was a Virginia planter and statesman of the American revolutionary era. He was a firm proponent of limited government who used his influence as the holder of government offices to reduce its reach.

Elected in 1759 to Virginia’s House of Burgesses, he proposed measures to resist Britain’s 1765 Stamp Act, which he considered a usurpation of the colonists’ right to elect the officials authorized to tax them. He joined with George Washington to write the 1774 Fairfax Resolves, which protested Britain’s Coercive Acts, asserted colonial rights, criticized the slave trade, and called for a boycott of British goods. In 1775, he turned down a seat in the second Continental Congress and instead assumed the place vacated by Washington in Fairfax County’s delegation to the Virginia Convention.

It was in this capacity that in June 1776 Mason authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which served as a model for other state rights declarations and later the national Bill of Rights. He also wrote an early draft of a constitution for Virginia, calling for a governor with severely limited powers, elected annually by a bicameral legislature.

Mason then worked as a member of the General Assembly and turned his attention to a series of other projects, including a revision of Virginia’s legal code and agitating for passage of Thomas Jefferson’s bill establishing religious freedom. Jefferson, who later lauded Mason’s “expansive mind” and “profound judgment,” found a key ally in Mason, who helped James Madison to secure the bill’s 1786 adoption while Jefferson represented the United States in France.

A year later, as a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Mason occasionally bickered with Madison’s proposals for a more robust national government. Like Jefferson, he considered the office of president under the proposed constitution too powerful and balked at the absence of a declaration of specific rights retained by states and individuals. Here, in his only appearance on the national stage, he opposed the creation of a truly national government and joined two other delegates in refusing to sign the finished draft of the constitution. In 1788, as a member of Virginia’s ratifying convention, he opposed its adoption and had already published an influential essay detailing his objections. Although Virginia’s convention agreed to the new plan of government, it made clear its support for the inclusion of a bill of rights.

Mason was pleased when the states adopted the first 10 amendments to the constitution in December 1791, and so indeed was Madison, who had come to embrace Mason’s belief that Americans needed written safeguards against the potential encroachments of national power. Like Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which reflected the principles of Mason’s earlier Declaration of Rights, the constitution fathered by Madison owed much to Mason, who led the movement for the inclusion of prohibitions against unwarranted and unintended encroachments on the authority of states and the rights of individuals.

Further Readings

Miller, Helen Hill. George Mason: Gentleman Revolutionary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Rutland, Robert A. George Mason: Reluctant Statesman. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1961.

Robert M. S. McDonald
Originally published