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George Mason

one of the most prolific, vocal, and respected members of the Constitutional Convention

George Mason

George Mason was born a plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia, on December 11, 1725, the first son of George and Ann Thomson Mason. His father died in a boating accident in 1735, after which Mason was sent to live with his uncle, John Mercer. Mason took advantage of his uncle's library to study law and other subjects, and took over his family's extensive land holdings upon attaining his majority. On April 4, 1750, he married Anne Eilbeck, with whom he had twelve children, nine of whom survived to adulthood (5 sons and 4 daughters).

Mason was a very "hands on" plantation owner, personally supervising every detail of planting, managing, and harvesting of crops. He was equally involved in the design and construction of his home, Gunston Hall, even spelling out how the mortar was to be mixed. In 1752 he acquired an interest in the Ohio Company, an organization that speculated in western lands. When the crown revoked the company's rights in 1773, Mason, the company's treasurer, wrote his first major state paper, Extracts from the Virginia Charters, with Some Remarks upon Them. During peace negotiations following the Revolutionary War, that paper formed the basis for American claims to all land south of the Great Lakes.

One of the richest planters in Virginia, Mason also became one of its most active, vocal, and respected politicians. He served as a justice of the Fairfax County Court, and between 1754 and 1779 as a trustee of the city of Alexandria. In 1759 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, in which he served until 1761. Active in the protest against the Stamp Act of 1765, Mason wrote a letter explaining the colonists' position titled "To the Committee of Merchants in London" that was published in the London Public Ledger in 1766. In 1769, he helped write non-importation agreements as a resistance measure against British taxation. Under these agreements, colonial citizens vowed to boycott British goods until their complaints were answered.

Anne Mason died on March 4, 1773, from complications following the birth of the couple's 11th and 12th children, twins who themselves died while still infants.

Despite his grief, George Mason remained active in community affairs. In July of 1774, he served on the Fairfax County Committee of Safety and oversaw the formation of an independent militia company for Virginia. He also helped write the Fairfax Resolves, a document that outlined the colonists' constitutional grounds for their objections to the Boston Port Act. In May of 1775 he was chosen as a Fairfax County delegate to the Virginia Convention, which was charged with drawing up a state constitution. A very vocal member of that body, it was Mason who drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was passed on June 12, 1776 and subsequently copied by other colonies. Mason continued to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates, the new state government created by the Virginia Constitution, until 1781. Although he never really cared for the "job" and made it a habit to show up late for sessions, he was a very prolific and respected member of the body. Ill health, combined with his increasing dislike of politics, led him to retire from public service. In 1780 he married Sarah Brent, with whom he spent the rest of his life.

Mason's retirement ended in 1787, when he agreed to join the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention. As he had been in the Virginia Legislature, Mason was a reluctant but very prolific and vocal member of the Convention. He consistently spoke out in favor of the rights of individuals and the states as opposed to the federal government, and against establishment of a 10-mile-square federal district. He was also a supporter of popular elections, unrestricted admission of new western states, and of a three-part executive branch. Compromises were ultimately reached on most major issues, but Mason's opposition to the document never waned. He was particularly upset at the decisions reached regarding individual rights and slavery. Although a lifelong slaveholder, Mason favored abolition as soon as it was economically feasible and wished to halt all future importation of slaves. However, a hasty compromise was worked out permitting the slave trade to continue for another 20 years. The last straw for Mason came on September 12, 1787, when his proposal to include a bill of rights in the new Constitution was defeated 10 states to none. Not even Mason's offer to write an immediate version himself was enough to sway the delegates, who were impatient to wrap up matters and go home. The convention also voted down Mason's proposal to hold a second convention, and he was visibly absent when the other delegates signed the final document on September 17.

As the individual states began debating the new Constitution, Mason became the leader of the fight against its ratification. He composed a three-page list of objections, and published them in the Pennsylvania Packet on October 4. This publication served as a counter to the Federalist Papers, that were written by the Constitution's biggest supporters. After Virginia ratified the Constitution by an 89-79 vote on June 25, 1788, Mason retired to Gunston Hall, where he continued to be consulted on political matters.

George Mason died at Gunston Hall on October 7, 1792, less than a year after the Bill of Rights was ratified.


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From Revolution to Reconstruction

See Also

Ohio Company
Revolutionary War
Stamp Act
Constitutional Convention
Federalist Papers

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> Revolution to Civil War >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on December 11, 2018.