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A founding father insisted that the Constitution wasn't worth ratifying without a bill of rights.
A founding father insisted that the Constitution wasn't worth ratifying without a bill of rights.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 5, 2006

GEORGE MASON

Forgotten Founder

By Jeff Broadwater

Univ. of North Carolina. 329 pp. $34.95

Four-and-a-half years ago, a monument to the man Jeff Broadwater calls the "Forgotten Founder" was unveiled in a lovely location within sight of the Jefferson Memorial and within (literally) a stone's throw of the District of Columbia end of the 14th St. Bridge -- which is officially known as the George Mason Memorial Bridge, though apparently nobody calls it that. It is one of the most charming monuments in a city where monumental charm is in short supply: Mason is seated on a bench, his legs casually crossed, a book in his right hand, a pleasantly contemplative look on his face. Children wandering the East Potomac Park often climb onto the bench next to Mason, while their parents read the inscription behind him and try to figure out who he was.

Historians of the colonial and revolutionary periods know him well, but the general public does not. Though in his time Mason was esteemed as highly as his fellow Virginians Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, he never held elective office higher than a seat in his state's legislature. And though he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and played an important part in writing that essential document, he ultimately (albeit unsuccessfully) urged that Virginia refuse to endorse it. He believed that, absent a bill of rights, the proposed Constitution did not sufficiently safeguard minority rights, and he feared that the central, federal government it sought to establish would be too powerful and offer too much temptation to corruption. Though it was widely understood at the time that this position was based on principle rather than mere crankiness, it denied him admission to the pantheon of Founding Fathers (though in fact he was one) and ushered him into comparative oblivion.

To be sure, a rising state university in his beloved Fairfax County is named in his honor -- leaving innumerable sports fans to ask, as its basketball team made an unlikely run for the national championship last spring, "George Who ?" -- and his residence, Gunston Hall, in the Northern Neck of the Potomac, "is open every day for inspection by schoolchildren and curious tourists." Yet his life and career remain obscure. He declined "to seek the historical spotlight," Broadwater writes. "Mason never sought national office. He never wrote his memoirs. He made no concerted effort, as best we can tell, to preserve his papers. Even more important is the elusive nature of Mason's accomplishments," which were intellectual rather than political or military.

Broadwater, who teaches history at Barton College in North Carolina, writes clear, unadorned prose and has an admirable ability to explain complex intellectual matters in terms the lay reader can understand. Because Mason left little evidence of his private life, there are blurred edges in the portrait that Broadwater paints, but overall this is an exemplary biography: sympathetic but dispassionate, thorough but not cluttered, convincing in its interpretations and arguments. It leaves no doubt that Mason deserves to be returned to the esteem and reputation he enjoyed during his lifetime, but in no way is it hagiography.

Mason was a child of the Virginia aristocracy, born in 1725: "As the eldest son of a wealthy planter in a hierarchical society, he likely would have acquired in early life an air of command, an understanding that he belonged to a class that was expected to dominate Virginia society." He seems to have read carefully in the law in the library of his uncle, John Mercer, who shared guardianship of him and his sister after their father's death in 1735, but he never was admitted to the bar and occupied himself primarily as planter and investor in western land. Beginning in early manhood he was involved in political matters but disliked the rough and tumble of politics and mostly stood aloof from it.

It was in the 1760s and '70s, as the British Parliament began tightening its grip on the colonies and revolutionary sentiment began to arise, that Mason formed his own "first principles," a "common set of ideas about how governments should function." His included "a love of virtue, a hatred of corruption, and a fear of luxury . . . [and] an acute sensitivity to prospective tyranny." He "believed in a fairly broad-based suffrage and in individual rights; few did more to enshrine notions like freedom of religion or the right to due process of law in the American political creed." In the mid-1770s, Mason described himself as "a Man, who spends most of his Time in Retirement, and has seldom medled in public Affairs," but the historical record reports otherwise:

"Between the summer of 1774 and the spring of 1776, a troubled Mason would draft a revolutionary manifesto, the Fairfax Resolves; serve reluctantly in a provisional government; and help organize first a militia and then an army to wage war against the British Empire. Indeed, by 1776 Mason would become one of the two or three dominant figures in Virginia politics. . . . Only Washington ranked higher in public esteem. Years later Jefferson recalled Mason as one of Virginia's 'really great men, and of the first order of greatness.' "

As the colonies moved toward declaring their independence and fighting to guarantee it, Mason was active in preparations, especially those pertaining to Virginia and the Northern Neck. He was "the principal architect" of Virginia's Declaration of Rights, which "combined a succinct statement of the republican principles that underlay the Revolution with a smattering of constitutional doctrine and separate provisions designed to protect individual civil liberties"; the declaration was hugely influential on the one that Jefferson later wrote for all the colonies. In the summer of 1776, he worked on Virginia's Constitution, which also became a model for the documents by which the nation-to-be established the powers, duties and limitations of government.

Broadwater is rightly at pains to insist that it usually is a mistake to equate Mason's positions more than two centuries ago with ones that are abroad today -- "Eighteenth-century republicanism," for example, "should not be confused with modern libertarianism." But he distrusted what is now commonly known as big government, he was a strong believer in the separation of church and state, and he was an ardent opponent of slavery, regarding it, in Broadwater's words, "as a moral evil, debasing the souls of slave owners and storing up wrath against the entire nation for a final day of judgment."

Mason hated slavery, yet he owned slaves -- dozens of them. In this he was not alone, and it is, as has often been remarked upon, something that should cause us to view the Founding Fathers with clarity rather than through the lens of mythology. "Because Mason never freed his slaves," Broadwater writes, "the depth of his hostility to slavery is suspect," but it is important to bear in mind that "while Mason cast a critical eye on slavery, it was an eighteenth-century eye," to which the capabilities of blacks were suspect and the rights of blacks were narrow, even nonexistent. It seems fairest to lament the contradiction between his rhetoric and his behavior but also to give him full credit for the ardor of his opinions on a subject to which most of his contemporaries were both deaf and blind and for the effect his words undoubtedly had on the arguments advanced by the abolitionists.

Mason spoke out strongly and repeatedly against slavery during debates at the Constitutional Convention and opposed a move to count slaves "for purposes of determining [congressional] representation 'notwithstanding it was favorable' to Virginia." In this as in many other respects, he was a moderating influence at the convention, and his fingerprints were all over the document that finally emerged. That he could not bring himself to endorse it, largely but not entirely because of the absence of a bill of rights, was an act of conscience for which history should honor him. That he ultimately was able to shape and help win approval of the Bill of Rights is one of the most enduringly important acts in American history.

A delegate to the convention from Georgia described him as follows: "Mr. Mason is a gentleman of remarkable strong powers, and possesses a clear and copious understanding. He is able and convincing in debate, steady and firm in his principles, and undoubtedly one of the best politicians in America." The nation is everlastingly in his debt, as Broadwater's fine book makes conclusively clear. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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