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Article V at 236: The People's Tool for Preserving Freedom

Published in Blog on September 14, 2023 by Jakob Fay

Col. George Mason of Virginia never trusted federal power. Although this sentiment of mistrust was not uncommon among the Founders, Mason, at times, seemed more wary of centralized government than even his peers.

Known as the "Father of the Bill of Rights," George Mason’s legacy is one of unwavering and unyielding commitment to individual liberties. His contributions to American governance resonate profoundly, with his advocacy for a balanced and restrained government enshrined in the Virginia Declaration of Rights: a document that laid the foundation for the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and subsequently, the Bill of Rights. Mason’s pronouncement 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” will today be recognized as a forerunner to Thomas Jefferson’s more famous Declaration of Independence. Even before the Revolutionary War, Mason’s concern for liberty was deeply engraved in the Founders’ political thought.

“The fact is unquestionable,” Jefferson once opined, “that the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution of Virginia, were drawn originally by George Mason, one of our greatest men, and of the first order of greatness."

Already distinguished and revered among the Framers for his fearless defense of colonial rights, at the Constitutional Convention, Mason came to the fore with a visionary proposal. As the new Constitution approached its final passage, the statesman from Virginia was deeply concerned that the power to amend the Constitution lay solely in the hands of the federal government, a body that, in his view, could become tyrannical over time. Recognizing the importance of future amendments to address evolving needs and correct potential abuses of power, Mason took a bold, history-changing step.

SEE ALSO: 'To prevent our becoming slaves': The George Mason story

On September 15, 1787—what we now call Article V day—George Mason stood before his fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention and presented a proposal for a second clause to Article V. His proposal was revolutionary: it allowed for amendments to the Constitution to be initiated not only by the federal government but also by state legislatures.

Mason argued passionately that granting the states the power to propose amendments was essential to preserving the balance of power and protecting the rights of the people. He believed that states should have a say in amending the Constitution, especially when the federal government might be reluctant to address issues that affected the states directly. His proposal aimed to ensure that the government remained accountable to the people and responsive to their needs. More than that, it empowered the people with the tools needed to rein in the federal government should it ever become “a corrupt, tyrannical aristocracy,” which Mason forewarned it would.

In his debate notes, James Madison recorded: “Col: MASON thought the [current] plan of amending the Constitution exceptionable & dangerous. As the proposing of amendments is in both the modes to depend, in the first immediately, in the second, ultimately, on Congress, no amendments of the proper kind would ever be obtained by the people, if the Government should become oppressive, as he verily believed would be the case.” Following Mason’s impassioned plea with the Convention, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania—the “Penman of the Constitution”—and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts “moved to amend the article so as to require a Convention on application of 2/3 of the Sts.”

SEE ALSO: What Federalist No. 85 says about Article V

Here, Madison’s notes include an interesting comment: “The motion… was agreed to nem: con,” Latin for “no one contradicting,” or “unanimously.” Remarkably, the Framers, who disagreed on virtually everything at the Convention, agreed to Mason’s proposal for an amendatory convention without a single dissenting comment. This marked a pivotal moment in the drafting of the Constitution—the birth of the Article V convention. Moreover, it proved the Founders’ universal commitment to protecting the American people from federal overreach.

Although Mason did not ultimately affix his signature to the Constitution (he was one of three delegates who refused to sign), his fingerprints on that document are indelible. Two hundred and thirty-six years later, Mason’s darkest fears about a central government taking too much power have proven true. But thanks to his wisdom and foresight, the American people are perfectly equipped to face that challenge.

At Convention of States, we stand in the shadows of George Mason and all those who adopted Article V “nem: con.” In The Federalist Papers, men like Alexander Hamilton specifically argued that America never needed fear “persons.. disinclined to yield up any portion of” their power for as long as the American people utilized Article V. Although a convention has not yet been called, it's not difficult to imagine the pride of the Founders, witnessing a nationwide grassroots movement take up that mantle and embody the spirit of George Mason's vision.

To join us in this historic mission, sign the Convention of States petition, below. To learn more about George Mason, read “'To prevent our becoming slaves': The George Mason story.” Think you know all there is to know about Article V? Take this quiz and find out!

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Almost everyone knows that our federal government is on a dangerous course. The unsustainable debt combined with crushing regulations on states and businesses is a recipe for disaster.

What is less known is that the Founders gave state legislatures the power to act as a final check on abuses of power by Washington, DC. Article V of the U.S. Constitution authorizes the state legislatures to call a convention to proposing needed amendments to the Constitution. This process does not require the consent of the federal government in Washington DC.

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