Mr. Bill of Rights
The Quiet Man of the American Revolution.
Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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.