George Mason

Portrait by Dominic W. Boudet
after the original by John Hesselius, c. 1750

QUICK FACTS & CHRONOLOGY
BORN:
11 December 1725 at the family plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia
  DIED:
7 October 1792 at Gunston Hall, his plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia
Buried at Gunston Hall

  • Becomes a colonel in the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War — thereafter referred to by his contemporaries as Colonel Mason. (Sep-1756)
  • Elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses (1758), but does not actively participate after the first year. It seems not to interest him since he does not run for a second term in 1761.
  • Following passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767, Mason authors (or possibly co-authors) the non-importation agreement signed by 88 Burgesses at Raleigh Tavern. (16-May-1768)
  • Elected to the third Virginia Convention. (17-Jul-1774)
  • During the fifth Virginia Convention, Mason authors the Declaration or Rights (approved 12-Jun-1776), the first part of the Virginia Constitution — which Jefferson echoes in the Declaration of Independence and which would serve as the model for the Bill of Rights.
  • Strongly supports Madison in opposing taxes to support teachers of religions (1785), which sets the stage for passage by the Virginia Assembly of A Bill Establishing Religious Freedom by Thomas Jefferson. (16-Jan-1786)
  • One of seven Virginia representatives to the Constitutional Convention and one of its most active and persuasive speakers. He helps forge the document that becomes the Constitution for the United States of America. (25-May to 17-Sep-1787)
  • One of three (including Edmund Randolph and Elbridge Gerry) who refuse to sign the Constitution. Mason argues that the Constitution should not be approved without adding a bill of rights. (17-Sep-1787)
  • Argues during the Virginia ratification process that the Constitution should not be approved without first adding additional amendments. Nonetheless Virginia ratifies the Constitution. (25-Jun 1788)
  • Resigns Fairfax County Court rather than take an oath to support the Constitution. (Aug-1789)
  • 2,000 acres of land Mason owns on the Potomac River is incorporated into the District of Columbia. (1790)
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George Mason, American patriot and statesman, was born in Stafford county (the part which is now Fairfax county), Virginia, in 1725. His family was of Royalist descent and emigrated to America after the execution of King Charles I. His colonial ancestors held official positions in the civil and military service of Virginia.

Mason was a near neighbor and a life-long friend of George Washington, though in later years they disagreed in politics. His large estates and high social standing, together with his personal ability, gave Mason great influence among the Virginia planters, and he became identified with many enterprises, such as the organization of the Ohio Company and the founding of Alexandria (1749). He was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1759 – 60. In 1769 he drew up for Washington a series of non-importation resolutions, which were adopted by the Virginia legislature. In July 1774 he wrote for a convention in Fairfax county a series of resolutions known as the Fairfax Resolves, in which he advocated a congress of the colonies and suggested non-intercourse with Great Britain, a policy subsequently adopted by Virginia and later by the Continental Congress.

He was a member of the Virginia Committee of Safety from August to December 1775, and of the Virginia Convention in 1775 and 1776. In 1776 he drew up the Virginia Constitution and its famous Bill of Rights, a radically democratic document which had great influence on American political institutions. In 1780 he outlined the plan which was subsequently adopted by Virginia for ceding to the Federal government her claim to the back lands, territory north and north-west of the Ohio river. From 1776 to 1788 he represented Fairfax county in the Virginia Assembly. He was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1776 – 80 and again in 1787 – 88.

In 1787 he was a member of the convention that framed the Federal Constitution, and as one of its ablest debaters took an active part in the work. Particularly notable was his opposition to the compromises in regard to slavery and the slave-trade. Indeed, like most of the prominent Virginians of the time, Mason was strongly in favor of the gradual abolition of slavery, though he himself owned slaves. He objected to the large and indefinite powers given by the completed Constitution to Congress, so he joined with Patrick Henry in opposing its ratification in the Virginia Convention (1788). Failing in this he suggested amendments, the substance of several of which was afterwards embodied in the present Bill of Rights.

Declining an appointment as a United States Senator from Virginia, he retired to his home, Gunston Hall (built by him about 1758 and named after the family home in Staffordshire, England), where he died in 1792.

In politics he was a radical republican, who believed that local government should be kept strong and central government weak; his democratic theories had much influence in Virginia and other southern and western states. Along with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, Mason carried through the Virginia legislature measures disestablishing the Episcopal Church and protecting all forms of worship.

ADAPTED FROM:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

The most exciting scientific find of the period was Charles Willson Peale’s exhumation in 1801 near Newburgh, New York, of the bones of the mastodon, or mammoth. Peale displayed his mammoth in his celebrated museum and in 1806 painted a marvelous picture of what was perhaps the first organized exhumation in American history. Peale’s discovery electrified the country and put the word mammoth on everybody’s lips. A Philadelphia baker advertised the sale of mammoth bread. In Washington a mammoth eater ate forty-two eggs in ten minutes. And under the leadership of the Baptist preacher John Leland, the ladies of Cheshire, Massachusetts, late in 1801 sent to President Jefferson a mammoth cheese, six feet in diameter and nearly two feet thick and weighing 1,230 pounds.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)