“Wisdom” is overused, underappreciated, best kept in a bottom drawer – for special people. On rare occasions, pulling that drawer is timely. As our nation confronts an assault on elements of the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments – all insisted upon by George Mason – let’s pull that drawer.
Mason, sometimes called the “forgotten founder,” paid a dear price for wisdom and the courage to say what he did. While history recalls the courage of Founders, many drew on Mason.
In fact, without Mason, epic figures in American history – to whom monuments properly stand – might be mere shadows, less than they became. You will, at this point, wonder how such an unusual statement can be made. Here is the answer.
Before Thomas Jefferson wrote the “Declaration of Independence,” Mason wrote Virginia’s “Declaration of Rights,” from which Jefferson drew. Their mutual friend, James Madison, passed to Jefferson updates on Mason’s work in early 1776.
Mason, a student of John Locke, shocked himself with a realization: No government will stay accountable unless God-given individual rights are preserved. Governments are only legitimate when people with those rights say so, giving their consent. Natural law trumps man’s laws.
Thus, Mason wrote in his “Virginia Declaration of Rights” that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety,” which Jefferson transposed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Laying the groundwork for our “Declaration of Independence” was just the start. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Mason worked tirelessly to shape three separate, coequal branches. He then proposed a Bill of Rights – without which he argued; a federal government could grow all-powerful. He was defeated; the idea is seen as unnecessary. Mason was so distressed by this omission to the Constitution; he refused to sign.
Courage? Yes, that cost him his lifetime friendship with George Washington, who felt he should have signed. Mason stood his ground. He held that states should not ratify without an express guarantee of individual rights against the federal government.
Courage? Yes, he even went one better. He felt the new Constitution should ban slavery. He saw only one way to interpret God’s gift of fundamental rights, consistent with natural law, which was that they flowed from Providence to all men, regardless of skin color. He lost again.
Sometimes, the mark of a leader is not a monument but the staying power in his ideas. While Washington felt betrayed by Mason’s insistence on express rights, his friend Madison – got it.
Mason continued to block ratification in a variety of states without a Bill of Rights. He was a true believer in the future, sacrificed his political ambitions to protect us against tyranny. In 1789, Madison introduced ten amendments to the Constitution, drawn from Mason’s “Objections” at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. They became our Bill of Rights the year before Mason died and remain with us today – a bulwark against federal excesses,
So Mason sacrificed future public service and friendships to assure – with persuasive intensity – those ten rights. We have them today because of Mason – so long as we defend them.
Oh, and what are those rights? In short, the First Amendment gives us free speech, exercise of religion, assembly, press, and the right to petition for grievances.
The second gives us the right to keep and bear arms, which Mason wrote was personal, not belonging to a militia.
While the Third involved not quartering British troops, the Fourth assured we were secure in our homes, no unreasonable searches and seizures; the Fifth gave us due process, assurances against being held unfairly or tried twice.
Sixth gave us fair, speedy, impartial trials, fair defense, right to confront our accusers, the Seventh jury trials, Eighth assured no excess fines or cruelty, Ninth assured rights were retained by The People, and Tenth assured rights not delegated stayed with the States and People.
Today – and this is where Mason’s shines. These rights are all, to some degree, under attack. Think about assaults on free speech, worship, assembly, grievance, an untrammeled right to bear arms, be free of unreasonable searches, enjoy due process, equal protection, no excess fines or punishments – and gradual overreach by a federal government into state and individual rights.
In short, Mason was ahead of his time – a principled leader. Thankfully, he put up a stink until we got our Bill of Rights.
His wisdom shaped arguments, called for courage. His courage cost him, but it matches that of other Founders.
That is why, as fundamental rights come under fire, we must know and defend history, not erase it. We must go back to what shaped Mason’s thinking, made him stand out – pariah at the Constitutional Convention, ready to sacrifice for principle, man of wisdom. We use the word seldom, but pulling it from the drawer, it fits George Mason.
All legitimate governments must govern from consent – which starts with respect for the People and their rights. Mason put his finger on it, and we benefit. As the old French warrior Lafayette once reflected: The American Revolution “one can regard as the beginning of a new social order for the entire world … the era of declarations of rights.” Wisdom – Mason had it. We do because he did. He defended it fervently – and we must now again.