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

Published in Blog on September 06, 2023 by Jakob Fay

As Convention of States celebrates ten years of grassroots activism, let’s look back on ten figures who have been instrumental in the Article V movement, beginning with George Mason, without whom we would not exist today.

The house was almost silent, as it had been for days. John, fast approaching his seventh birthday, watched his desolate father pace from room to room, alone. Sometimes, he’d wander out to the grave—to her grave. They all knew why: Ann Eilbeck, George Mason’s beloved wife, was dead; and the whole house was haunted by her absence.

Young John had watched as his mother’s body was lowered into the ground. He noted the “large assemblage” who came to pay their respects. But above all, he noted the profound sadness that fell on them all. For days ensuing, not even the slaves could refrain from crying. Her children—Ann and George had had 12 kids, although three had passed in infancy—could scarce bring themselves to speak. They had lost two brothers, Richard and James, twins, barely three months prior—and now their mother.

George reentered the house, still silent. Still steeped in grief. Still lonely. He would eventually pick up the family Bible, open it, and pen a heartsick—but fondly reminiscent—description of his late wife, his words seeming to grasp longingly at she who was no more:

“She was something taller than the middle size, and elegantly shaped,” he remembered. “Her eyes were black, tender and lively; her features regular and delicate; her complexion remarkably fair and fresh. Lilies and roses (almost without a metaphor) were blended there, and a certain inexpressible air of cheerfulness and health. Innocence and sensibility diffused over her countenance formed a face the very reverse of what is generally called masculine.”

He had also composed the epitaph inscribed on her tombstone, on which he called her “all that cheers and sweetens Life…. all that makes Mankind adore; Now view this Marble,” he added, “and be vain no more.” It seems he took his own advice; at least, for days on end, George Mason did little but pace his plantation and frequent the stone under which the lovely Ann Eilbeck lay.

But he could not be indisposed forever. Not only did he have nine children to raise and a plantation to run, but, at the time, George Mason was also deeply embroiled in political controversy surrounding taxation. Nearly eight years prior, the wealthy Virginia planter had become a leading voice against the 1765 Stamp Act when he penned a plan enabling colonial landlords to skirt the tax. Shortly thereafter, English merchants urged the colonies to forgo their senseless opposition and comply with the taxes. Mason’s response, an open letter to the merchants of London, became a popular anti-British taxation dissertation, containing seeds of the political philosophy prevalent in his later work.

Despite acknowledging the “supreme Authority of Great Britain over her” colonies, Mason nevertheless warned that, “There is a Passion natural to the Mind of Man, especially a free Man, which renders him impatient of Restraint. Do you… think that three or four Millions of People, not naturally defective in Genius, or in Courage, who have tasted the Sweets of Liberty in a Country that doubles its Inhabitants every twenty Years… will long submit to Oppression; if unhappily for yourselves, Oppression shou'd be offered them?” Prophetically, he had added: “Such another Experiment as the Stamp-Act wou'd produce a general Revolt in America.”

Although his wife’s death had temporarily wrenched him from the fight, a man of Mason’s political stature and esteem—in 1773, nonetheless—could not be kept from politics indefinitely. 

“To prevent our becoming slaves”

John Murray was born around 1730 in Perthshire, Scotland. His father, William Murray, the Third Earl of Dunmore, had participated in the Jacobite rising of 1745, in which Charles Edward Stuart (whom the 15-year-old John had served as a page) sought to wrest control of the English throne from his father, an act of treason that landed the senior Murray in prison for life. Although information about William is sparse, it seems he perished in prison in 1756, at which time John became the Fourth Earl and joined the House of Lords.

Needless to say, the Murray family had had a complicated history with the Crown, a fact that almost certainly gnawed at John, the son of a traitor and former pageboy to the exiled “Young Pretender," as he wrestled with the crisis that now lay before him.

An unlovable pariah in an increasingly volatile world, John Murray, now appointed royal governor of Virginia, ever fell in and out of popularity with the colonists. Tonight, he would forever certify and cement his unpopularity.

The poor man had tried everything to win over his “constituents’”—they were more like begrudging subjects—approval. He even named his daughter Virginia. But in a pre-Revolutionary War America, his dual loyalties had increasingly been tested.

In response to the Boston “Tea Party” of last December, Parliament had closed Boston Harbor and passed the punishing Coercive Acts of 1774, better known as the Intolerable Acts. Then, Virginia’s very own House of Burgesses, founded in 1619, had issued a series of resolutions blasting the Intolerable Acts and declaring solidarity with Boston, America’s epicenter of revolution.

Ah, revolution—a word the royal governor dreaded to hear. Yet an inescapable one these days. John Murray knew he was not on the best of terms with the king. For months, rumors of his alleged philandering—reflecting poorly, in the colonists' eyes, on Great Britain—had tainted his political standing back in London. Now, here was, perhaps, an opportunity to redeem himself—the chance in an age of revolution to prove his loyalty. Of course, in doing so, he would eternally alienate—indeed, make himself the enemy of—liberty-loving Virginians, the very people he had labored for years to fit in with. But he had no choice. He would not make the same mistake his father had. Duty called—and John Murray dissolved the House of Burgesses.

Seemingly, England had not heeded George Mason’s prescient warning that “another Experiment as the Stamp-Act wou'd produce a general Revolt in America.” Perhaps that inciting “Experiment” was the passage of the Intolerable Acts. Perhaps it was the untimely death of Virginia's elected assembly—killed by her governor himself. More than likely, it was both of these—and a thousand other grievances—combined. But whatever the cause, Britain needed to be, again, warned that revolt was brewing.

Of course, to say that the dissolution of the House of Burgesses in any way truly halted that iconic assembly would be an overstatement. Delegates, including George Washington, simply reconvened at Raleigh Tavern. Sensing that relations with the crown were irrevocably broken, Virginia’s misplaced burgesses determined to assert their rights more forcibly than ever before. They needed a pugnacious writer, and a prominent name came to mind.  

George Mason had collaborated with Washington before (in fact, Washington had acquired part of his beloved Mount Vernon property from Mason). The widower had also fully supported the General Assembly's controversial resolutions of support for Boston. As a Virginian with vested and long-standing interest in the question of colonial taxation, he was the perfect man for the job. Two months after John Murray had dissolved the House of Burgesses and sixteen months after his wife’s passing, Mason met with the future first president of the United States at Mount Vernon for a meeting of incalculable importance. Together, the two political geniuses set out to change history. 

The resulting document, the Fairfax Resolves, penned primarily by Mason, put King George III on alert that colonial patience with Britain’s “soft tyranny” was wearing dangerously thin.

Mason argued that “the most important and valuable Part of the British Constitution, upon which [its] very Existence depends, is the fundamental Principle of the People’s being governed by no Laws, to which they have not given their Consent, by Representatives freely chosen by themselves… for if this Part of the Constitution was taken away, or materially altered, the Government must degenerate either into an absolute and despotic Monarchy, or a tyrannical Aristocracy, and the Freedom of the People be annihilated.”

Mason was not being dramatic—he and his co-conspirators truly feared that freedom was on the line, that Great Britain might devolve into a “despotic Monarchy” or tyranny. Although they did not mean to separate from the motherland, they nevertheless would not purchase tranquility at the price of chains and slavery. With Mason’s Fairfax Resolves, a new, bold offer was on the table—whatever it took to remain free.

“Resolved,” Mason continued, “that it is our greatest Wish and Inclination, as well as Interest, to continue our Connection with, and Dependance upon the British Government; but tho’ We are [its] Subjects, we will use every Means which Heaven hath given Us to prevent our becoming [its] Slaves.”

With these explicit words, the stage was set. The American colonies had made their intentions clear—they regarded England's hostility as a precursor to oppression and bondage, and would address it accordingly.

And whatever came next, George Mason was set to play a part in it.

To be continued…

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