In A Nutshell
George Mason is usually called the “Forgotten Founder,” which is what happens when you go up against the rest of America’s Founding Fathers. Mason wrote one of the earliest documents that defined the responsibilities and reconstruction of the new government, but when it came time to sign the Constitution, he refused. In fact, he campaigned against it. As it originally stood, it guaranteed no freedoms and rights for the individual, and Mason condemned it as part of an all-powerful government that needed to be stopped.
The Whole Bushel
Today, we often remember the Founding Fathers as being a mostly united front while they were writing the documents that would shape the future of the still-young United States. Everyone’s been taught that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (or, more accurately, put it together from bits and pieces he drew from other authors), but the father of the Bill of Rights, George Mason, is a little less famous.
He gave his name to George Mason University, but today he’s faded into obscurity. That’s odd for a Founding Father who refused to sign the Constitution.
Mason presented his Bill of Rights for Virginia just a handful of days before Jefferson started writing the Declaration of Independence. Mason’s bill included an article that stated: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain rights [ . . . ] namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
Sound a bit familiar?
Jefferson and Mason were good friends throughout their lives, and Jefferson would later freely admit that his words had been influenced by other writers. Also in Mason’s Bill of Rights were the ideas of freedom of religion, freedom of the press, due process, and speedy trials.
They were all laws designed to protect the rights of the individual, something that Mason, a staunch abolitionist, campaigned tirelessly for.
So when it came time to sign the Constitution, Mason flatly refused. Instead, he returned to Virginia and started campaigning against the ratification of the document. Fellow statesman Patrick Henry joined him, and they remained unwavering in their insistence that the Constitution not be signed until something had been added that would guarantee the freedoms of the individual.
Mason worried the government was shaping up to be an all-powerful, all-seeing entity that answered to no one but itself.
He cited numerous reasons why the Constitution shouldn’t be ratified as it was written, laying them out in a document that was distributed among the other heads of the young government. It ultimately lost him the friendship of many of them.
Mason’s biggest beef was that the Constitution gave the government too much power. There was no declaration of rights that said exactly what the people were entitled to. The power lay in the hands of the few, allowing them to make laws governing the many.
He wrote that justice would be unobtainable, that the rich would be allowed to subjugate and control the poor, and that the legislative and executive branches of the government had no incentive to work for the people rather than each other.
He took issue with the presidential ability to pardon someone for treason, saying that there was nothing to keep that power from being abused. While we don’t typically see that in the US today, Mason also worried that Congress would be allowed to enact severe laws at its own discretion and that the arm of the government had no limits as to how far it could reach.
History has shown that if the branches work together, this overreach is certainly theoretically possible.
Show Me The Proof
George Mason’s Objections to the Constitution
Gunston Hall: George Mason and the Constitution
The Freeman: George Mason: Father of the Bill of Rights
Center for Civic Education: George Mason: The Reluctant Founder