The Magazine

Mr. Bill of Rights

The Quiet Man of the American Revolution.

Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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George Mason

Forgotten Founder

by Jeff Broadwater

North Carolina, 352 pp., $34.95

Anyone who reads widely in American history is justified these days in asking whether we haven't reached a surfeit of biographies of the nation's Founders. Not only are studies of the lives of the Big Six--Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and Madison (with perhaps Marshall thrown in to make Seven)--beyond counting. But it has even gotten to the point that we now have four recent biographies of Gouverneur Morris. Does yet another Founder's biography yield any hope of adding significantly to our understanding of that extraordinary era, even if we learn something more of a particular individual? Smart money would bet no. And smart money would bet right.

To say as much is not to detract from the many merits of Jeff Broad water's biography of George Mason, the first in over 30 years and the most comprehensive ever. The work is justified if only to bring back into view a man whom Broadwater justifiably calls--as no doubt he would John Jay, Rufus King, John Witherspoon, and, yes, Gouverneur Morris--a "forgotten Founder." The book embodies the very latest in scholarship about the nation's early years. Broadwater teases out of relatively skimpy materials everything of relevance about his subject, even if he can't make the acerbic, often phlegmatic Mason a particularly winning character. So the complaint--that the book doesn't add significantly to what we already know of the nation's formative years--may be beside the point. Mason's life is worth knowing about for its own sake.

Mason was born into the great plantation gentry of Virginia's Northern Neck and was second only to his neighbor George Washington as the region's most extensive landowner and in the avidity with which he sought to amass always more acreage. Also like Washington, he was self-educated, although Mason more than Washington made himself genuinely erudite in matters of political philosophy and affairs. Unlike the squire of Mount Vernon, however, except for Mason's lifelong speculations in western lands, his interests were resolutely local. It was from service to his Tidewater neighborhood, to colony and state legislature, and to his Anglican parish that he derived his greatest satisfactions.

What's noteworthy about Mason's contributions to the era of revolution and constitution-making is that he was not a lawyer. He nevertheless became one of the most noted political thinkers, productive legislators, and skilled legislative draftsmen of his day--often while absenting himself, out of both ill health and laziness, from the local and state bodies to which he was elected. Even so, he was, as Jefferson wrote of his legislative work, "a host," and his hand seems to have been in everything. He wrote the 1774 Fairfax Resolves, which attacked parliamentary authority over the colonies. It was he who, in helping draft the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, penned words about people's right to life, liberty, and happiness that Jefferson would embody in his more celebrated rendering in the Declaration of Independence. Then he had a major hand in drafting the Virginia Constitution of 1776--one that lasted for 54 years.

Nor should Mason be forgotten for two major ways in which he distinguished himself from most of his fellow Virginians. He was an early, and with Madison and Jefferson, a leading proponent of the separation of church and state. And on grounds progressive for their time, even if he stopped short of calling for the end of slavery itself, Mason throughout his life opposed the trade in slaves. Yet it is for his distinctive contributions to early constitution-making that he has earned and kept his historical reputation.

Mason's contributions to the drafting of the Constitution were second in importance to those of very few others. It was he, for instance, who was responsible for introducing the Great Compromise, whereby the House and Senate are apportioned differently. But his influence can be felt throughout the entire scheme of government--in its provisions and its words--in ways too numerous to list. Also in Philadelphia, he assumed the kinds of distinctive stances by which he was already known, such as opposing as "unjust" the boosting of southern power by counting three-fifths of the slaves for purposes of representation.