George Mason (sometimes referred to as George Mason IV) (December 11, 1725 – October 7, 1792) was a Virginia planter, politician, and a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, one of three men who refused to sign. His writings, including substantial portions of the Fairfax Resolves of 1774, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, and his Objections to this Constitution of Government (1787) in opposition to ratification of the constitution, have been a significant influence on political thought and events.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights served as a basis for the United States Bill of Rights, of which he has been deemed the father.
Mason was born in 1725, most likely in present-day Fairfax County, Virginia. Mason’s father died when he was young, and his mother managed the family estates until he came of age. He married in 1750, built Gunston Hall, and lived the life of a country squire, supervising his lands, family and slaves.
Mason briefly served in the House of Burgesses and involved himself in community affairs, sometimes serving with his neighbor, George Washington. As tensions between Britain and the American colonies grew, Mason came to support the colonial side, and used his knowledge and experience to help the revolutionary cause, finding ways to work around the Stamp Act of 1765 and serving in the rebel Virginia Conventions of 1775 and 1776.
Mason prepared the first draft of the Declaration of Rights in 1776, and his words formed much of the text adopted by the final Virginia Convention. He also wrote a constitution for the state; others who sought to have the convention adopt their ideas, like Thomas Jefferson, found Mason’s version could not be stopped. During the war, he was a member of the powerful lower house of the Virginia General Assembly, the House of Delegates, but to the irritation of Washington and others, refused to serve in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, citing health and family commitments.
Named one of his state’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention, Mason traveled to Philadelphia, his only lengthy trip outside Virginia. Many clauses in the document bear his stamp, as he was active in the convention for months before deciding he could not sign it.
He cited the lack of a bill of rights most prominently in his Objections, but also wanted an immediate end to the slave trade, which he opposed, and a supermajority for navigation acts, which might force exporters of tobacco to use more expensive American ships.
Although he lost there, and again at the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788, his prominent fight for a bill of rights led his fellow Virginian, James Madison, to introduce one during the First Congress in 1789, and it was ratified in 1791, a year before Mason died. Long obscure, Mason is today recognized for his contributions to the United States, and to Virginia.
George Mason’s great-grandfather, George Mason I, had been a Cavalier: militarily defeated in the English Civil War, some of them came to America in the 1640s and 1650s. He had been born in 1629 at Pershore, in the English county of Worcestershire. The immigrant George Mason settled in what is now Stafford County, Virginia, having obtained land as a reward for bringing his party to the colony.
His son, George Mason II (1660–1726), was the first to move to what in 1742 became Fairfax County, then at the frontier between English and Native American areas. George Mason III (1690–1735), served in the House of Burgesses, and like his father was county lieutenant. George Mason IV’s mother, Ann Thomson Mason, was the daughter of a former Attorney General of Virginia who had immigrated from London, and was of a Yorkshire family.
The Masons lived in a colonial Virginia that had few roads, as most commerce was carried on Chesapeake Bay or through the waters of the Potomac, Rappahannock or other rivers. Most settlement took place near the rivers, through which planters could trade with the world.
Thus, colonial Virginia initially developed few towns, since estates were largely self-sufficient, and could get what they needed without the need to purchase locally. Even the capital, Williamsburg saw little activity when the legislature was not in session. Local politics was dominated by large landowners like the Masons. The Virginia economy rose and fell with tobacco, the main crop, which was mostly for export to Britain.
Into this world was born George Mason, fourth of that name, on December 11, 1725. He may have been born at his father’s plantation on Dogue’s Neck (later Mason Neck), but this is uncertain as his parents also lived on their lands across the Potomac in Maryland.
On March 5, 1735, George Mason III died when his boat capsized while crossing the Potomac. His widow Ann would raise their son George (then 9) and two younger siblings as co-guardian with lawyer John Mercer. She selected property at Chopawansic Creek (today in Prince William County, Virginia) as her dower house and there lived with her children and administered the lands that her elder son would control upon reaching his 21st birthday.
In 1736, George began his education with a Mr. Williams, hired to teach him for the price of 1,000 pounds (450 kg) of tobacco per annum. George’s studies began at his mother’s house, but the following year, he was boarded out to a Mrs. Simpson in Maryland, with Williams continuing as teacher through 1739. By 1740, George Mason was again at Chopawansic, under the tutelage of a Dr. Bridges.
Mason’s biographers have speculated that this was Charles Bridges, who helped develop the schools run in Britain by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, and who came to America in 1731. In addition, Mason and his brother Thomson doubtlessly had the run of Mercer’s library, one of the largest in Virginia, and the conversations of Mercer and the book-lovers who gathered around him were likely an education in themselves.
Mercer was a brilliant man of strong opinions, who expressed his views in ways that sometimes gave offense; Mason proved similar in brilliance of mind and ability to anger. George Mason attained his majority in 1746, and continued to reside at Chopawansic with his siblings and mother.