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George Mason: Of the First Order of Greatness

Published in Blog on November 29, 2020 by Matt May

Few would likely disagree with the notion that Founding Father George Mason is the patron saint of the Convention of States movement.

Indeed, it is quite fitting that the image of Mason is featured on one side of the original COS Challenge Coin. Not only did Mason insist upon the provision that became Article V of the United States Constitution, but his suspicion of an overly powerful centralized government and his understanding for the need to place clear limits upon human greed and avarice make him a natural philosophical ally.

In 1776 Mason--a prominent figure in Virginia politics who long counted among his friends George Washington--wrote the initial draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Constitution of Virginia. The Declaration of Rights is recognized as the first of its kind in North America. That is to say that it was the first document that recognized the individual citizen as sovereign.

It informs the truncated language of the Declaration of Independence and even the Bill of Rights, for which Mason strenuously fought. Phrases in Mason’s declaration that ring through the ages and recognizable to all include:

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights…That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people…That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly ought to be free…That the freedom of the press…can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”

Thomas Jefferson put it finely when he said, "The fact is unquestionable, that the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution of Virginia, were originally drawn by George Mason, one of our greatest men, and of the first order of greatness."

Of interest to COS, Mason’s influence at the Constitutional Convention was invaluable, particularly concerning discussion and debate about the mechanisms for amending what would become the Constitution.

The notion that the states–without interference from Congress–would have the ability to rebalance constitutional order was presented as part of the Virginia Plan, which was authored by James Madison and heavily influenced by Mason. The Virginia Plan was first proposed in Philadelphia in May 1787.

Some delegates to the convention believed that any such provision was unnecessary. However, as Madison noted in his Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787,

“Col: Mason urged the necessity of such a provision. The plan now to be formed will certainly be defective, as the Confederation has been found on trial to be. Amendments will therefore be necessary, and it will be better to provide for them, in any easy, regular and Constitutional way than to trust to chance and violence. It would be improper to require the consent of the Natl Legislature, because they may abuse their power, and refuse their consent on that very account…”

Debate continued. Roger Sherman of Connecticut suggested a plan by which Congress would propose amendments for ratification by the states. But Mason, ever the critical skeptic of overarching centralized power, would not be moved. Again, from Madison’s Notes:

“Col: Mason thought the plan of amending the Constitution exceptionable & dangerous. As the proposing of amendments is in both the modes to depend, in the first immediately, and 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.”

Mason’s prescience stands out, even among that astute group of far-seeing men, and is enshrined in the form of Article V and the right of state legislatures to gather and potentially amend the Constitution.

That skepticism of powerful centralized government that could be readily abused by those whose allegiances are not to republican government but to self-enrichment and aggrandizement left Mason–despite the inclusion of Article V–dissatisfied with the final version of the Constitution.

He was particularly displeased that the final document did not include the protections afforded by what would become the Bill of Rights. He was equally upset that the Constitution did not abolish the slave trade, a subject to which he was most dedicated.

Because of those objections, Mason refused to sign the Constitution as first presented to the states. In so doing, he lost a great deal, including his friendship with Washington, who was his longtime neighbor and ally.

Mason also refused to serve as a United States senator from Virginia. His wishes for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights motivated Madison and others in Congress to push for the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, adopted a year before Mason’s death.

As we confront a new year that will challenge not only the COS movement but the construction and legitimacy of our government in all of its forms, it is well to ponder Mason’s principled stands, his commitment to liberty and the sovereign people, and to consider another of Mason’s invaluable insights to the core principle of this republic as motivation for our endeavors:

In all our associations; in all our agreements, let us never lose sight of this fundamental maxim – that all power was originally lodged in, and consequently is derived from, the people. We should wear it as a breastplate and buckle it as our armour.”

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