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Morton: George Mason was a revered founding father

On this day (Oct. 7) in 1792, Revolutionary statesman George Mason IV died at age 67 at his Potomac River plantation Gunston Hall.

Mason was born in 1725 in Fairfax County on the northern neck of Virginia into the wealthy slave-owning family of George and Ann Mason. He was educated initially by private tutors and, after his father’s death, by his uncle, John Mercer.

The studious young Mason utilized his uncle’s 1,500-volume library to gain, without the benefit of any formal schooling, a classical education that, perhaps, equaled that of many of his more illustrious college-educated fellow founding fathers.

Mason was foremost an active plantation owner who much preferred the unhurried lifestyle of a wealthy country gentleman to that of an active politician. His main focus always was the management of his large estate and raising the nine children that survived his wife’s (Anne Eilbeck) early death.

In 1780, after years of single-parent life, Mason married Sarah Brent, with whom he lived his last 12 years in rural opulence. Despite his oft-stated aversion to public service, he did somewhat reluctantly participate intermittently in the political life of Fairfax County, of Virginia, and of the young American republic.

Mason served as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1758-1760 and of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1776-1788. Greatly infuriated by the British parliament’s passage in 1765 of the universally hated Stamp Act, Mason actively joined the anti-British patriot movement.

After passage of the 1767 Townshend Duties, Mason drafted the nonimportation resolution, which his Potomac River neighbor and close friend George Washington presented to the House of Burgesses. After passage of the 1774 Coercive Acts, Mason was asked to draft the Fairfax Resolves, which adroitly stated the colonial constitutional position on British post-1763 taxing policies.

More famously, Mason drafted, in 1776, the Virginia Bill of Rights, which became the model for Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and later for the Bill of Rights (first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution).

In and out of public office, Mason staunchly supported the disestablishment of the Anglican Church (of which he was a member) in Virginia.

Mainly because of his well-known and well-deserved reputation as a political theorist and writer, Mason was chosen as one of Virginia’s seven delegates to the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. At the Grand Convention, Mason was one of the more frequent speakers, usually speaking in support of states’ rights and “small” national government, and his opposition to the “nefarious” slave trade. Although he was apparently a benevolent slave master, he was one of the largest slave owners in Virginia and, therefore, could be legitimately censured for his active support of slavery and for his hypocrisy.

Interestingly, although he was one of the major drafters of the Constitution, he was one of the three delegates present at the convention Sept. 17 who refused to sign the final draft because he claimed that “the dangerous power and structure” of the proposed government “would end either in monarchy or tyrannical aristocracy.”

He also lamented the absence of a Bill of Rights in the final draft; a concern, however, that was mollified with the addition of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution in 1791.

At the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Mason worked with the ever-popular Patrick Henry to defeat ratification, but despite their efforts, Virginia did narrowly ratify in June 1788.

Mason properly belongs on any short list of revered founding fathers for his authorship of the Virginia Bill of Rights, for his work at the Constitutional Convention, and for being, in essence, the co-author, along with James Madison, of the national Bill of Rights.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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