Mr. Bill of Rights
The Quiet Man of the American Revolution.
Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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.
Yet, in the end, again distinctively, Mason worked to defeat ratification of the Constitution he'd done so much to create, and it's for this that he's now perhaps best known. Yes, he's recalled most often for opposing the document because it lacked a bill of rights. But as Broadwater makes clearer than it has ever been, Mason opposed the Constitution for many other reasons, especially for not adequately protecting minority rights and for opening the door, so he feared, to the corruptions of power. The House was too small compared with the Senate, he argued; a two-thirds majority was not required to pass commercial legislation; the slave trade was not ended immediately; and so on and on.
In the end, Mason threw so many objections at what was so much his handiwork that his opposition now seems excessive and somewhat unfathomable. Yet even in unbridled opposition, Mason made his mark. While the Virginia ratification convention spurned his call to propose specific amendments to the Constitution, in the end he got his wish: His admirer and friend James Madison saw that amendments constituting a bill of rights were introduced into the very first federal Congress.
One has to ask why a man of such importance to the nation's early history has so largely disappeared from the record, why he figures so little in the popular narrative of "The Founding," and why in the end Broadwater cannot really bring him alive.
In this case, the responsibility for Mason's relative neglect is largely his own. He was a provincial even among other provincials. Of the great founders, only Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams were world-traveled. Washington left the country only once, Madison never, and Hamilton also not a single time after arriving in the colonies from his native Nevis. But at least these men knew their own country by travel and wide acquaintance with its people. The farthest Mason ever ventured from Virginia was to Philadelphia in 1787, toward the end of his life. He was a Virginian even more than Madison and Jefferson, a local boy resolutely local. Known by reputation to the governing elite in all the states, he was little known to most Americans of his day and, more important, often ignorant of them in turn.
Furthermore, Mason savored local politics--the affairs of his county and parish and the Northern Neck of Virginia--much more than he did national politics. He kept as informed of the latter as a reader and correspondent might, but his political views, formed and honed largely in the Tidewater and in Williamsburg among other members of the Virginia elite, were those of a Virginian.
In addition, he lent his pen to the dry matter of legislation much more than his great contemporaries. Ac knowl edged to be a master lawmaker, he poured words into the dry business of legislating rather than into the epistolary art for which Jefferson and Adams are so noted, or into ringing phrases of principle. It was altogether characteristic of him to provide words that others, with his acknowledgment and approval, used to better effect--whether in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence or Madison's Bill of Rights.
Finally, of course, Mason opposed ratification of the Constitution. One should take Broadwater's biography to be another step in the rehabilitation of the Constitution's anti-federalist opponents. But that exacts a price from Mason himself, for it has become his fate to stand as Representative anti-federalist. The man who carried so much of the weight of the Constitutional Convention on his shoulders, and provided so many provisions to its final product, will always be associated with his efforts in Virginia to defeat it. His lot is likely to remain that of the great Framer who turned on his own creation.
But we should remember this, too: Like most anti-federalists, he was quickly reconciled to the government he had done so much to found. When Americans divided themselves bitterly into parties in the 1790s, they did so within, not outside, Mason's frame of government. By then, however, George Mason, one of the oldest of the Framers, was dead.
James M. Banner Jr. is a founder of the National History Center.