But the most significant contribution Mason made to the fledgling state government was writing a constitution and bill of rights during a six week period in May and June of 1776. Mason's readings in history had convinced him that "there never was a government over a very extensive country without destroying the liberties of the people," and he sought to remedy that with a declaration of rights. A committee was assigned to do the writing, but except for Madison's insertion of stronger wording on freedom of religion, the words are entirely Mason's. Some of Mason's phrases appear in the U.S. Bill of Rights that passed 15 years later. The idea as well as the wording caught on, and by the end of 1776 five colonies had adopted declarations of rights, and by 1783 every state had some form of a bill of rights.Mason was also a key player in drafting the Constitution, although he refused to sign it.
Mason's hand was clearly the guiding force behind this process. Edmund Pendleton, president of the Virginia Assembly, wrote to Jefferson, who was in Philadelphia working on the Declaration of Independence, that "the political cooks are busy in preparing the dish, and as Colonel Mason seems to have the ascendancy in the great work, I have sanguine hopes it will be framed so as to answer its end."
Edmund Randolph said that of all the plans being discussed, "those proposed by George Mason swallowed up all the rest." Nearly 50 years later, Jefferson added, "the fact is unquestionable that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of Virginia were drawn originally by George Mason."
The Declaration of Rights was approved by the Assembly on June 12,1776, and 17 days later Mason had a final draft of the state constitution approved by that body. Although he remained in the legislature four more years and influenced nearly all major bills, Mason never made a more important contribution than authoring the first American document that limited the authority of governments and strengthened the rights of individuals.
By 1780, Mason felt the new government was on firm foundation and he could safely leave of fice. In that year, he remarried and retired to Gunston Hall, letting it be known that he would consider any effort to draft him back into the legislature as "an oppressive and unjust invasion of my personal liberty."
But Mason was too respected, important, and opinionated to stay retired. At first, he spoke out from Gunston Hall on certain issues. In particular, he felt that American debts to British merchants should be honored, as the Revolution had not been fought merely to elude creditors.
Since Gunston Hall was located on the road from Richmond to Philadelphia, leaders on the way from one capital to another began to stop and seek Mason's counsel. In 1783, when debate was going on over revising the Articles of Confederation, the wisest minds sought to involve Mason again. Jefferson wrote to Madison asking if he had stopped by Gunston Hall on his way home from the Continental Congress:
"You have seen G. M., I hope, and had much conversation with him. What are his sentiments on the amendment of our constitution? What amendments would he approve? Is he determined to sleep on, or will he rouse and be active?"
"I took Colonel Mason in my way and had an evening's conversation with him . . . on the article of convention for revising our form of government, he was sound and ripe and I think would not decline participation in such a work."
Shortly afterward, Mason was part of a panel that negotiated a Potomac navigation agreement between Virginia and Maryland, which served as a sign that cooperation between states could be achieved and that Mason was ready to come out of retirement.
When the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called, Mason agreed to go to Philadelphia as one of Virginia's delegates. He arrived on May 17, typically the last of his delegation to arrive, and lost no time in complaining. He had been in town less than two weeks when he wrote to his son that he had begun "to grow heartily tired of the etiquette and nonsense so fashionable in this city."What an incredible man Mason was, and very concerned with preserving our natural rights. Lord knows we could use men like him today. Men of principles, not politics.
Yet for once Mason was impressed by his peers, writing that "America has certainly, upon this occasion, drawn forth her first characters." He was also impressed by the seriousness of the business at hand, noting that "the eyes of the United States are turned upon this assembly, . . . may God grant that we may be able to gratify them, by establishing a wise and just government."
Throughout the convention, Mason consistently spoke out in favor of the rights of individuals and the states as opposed to the federal government. He spoke out strongly against a 10- mile-square Federal district that ironically came to be located just a few miles from his home. Concerning the proposed District of Columbia, Mason said:
"This ten miles square may set at defiance the laws of the surrounding states and may . . . become the sanctuary of the blackest crimes! Here the federal courts are to sit . . . what sort of jury shall we have within the ten miles square? The immediate creatures of government!"
Mason also spoke out in favor of popular elections, unrestricted admission of new western states, and in favor of a three-part executive. As the summer wore on, compromises were reached on most major issues, but a growing Federalist consensus began to emerge. What finally turned Mason against the proceedings were decisions reached on a bill of rights and on slavery.
Although a lifelong slaveholder, Mason abhorred the institution, feeling that "every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant." He 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.
This compromise upset Mason, and he wrote bitterly to Jefferson of
"the precipitate, and not to say indecent, manner in which the business was conducted, during the last week of the Convention, after the patrons of this new plan found they had a decided majority in their favor; which was attained by a compromise between the Eastern and the two Southern states to permit the latter to continue the importation of slaves for twenty odd years; a more favorite object with them than the liberty and happiness of the people."
For Mason, the last straw 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 Mason declared he could not support the final version. "Colonel Mason left Philadelphia in an exceeding ill humor indeed," Madison wrote to Jefferson, and Mason was not present when the other delegates signed on September 17.
Instead, Mason was one of the leaders in the fight against ratification of the new Constitution. He composed a three-page list of objections, and, after dutifully forwarding a copy to George Washington, published them in the Pennsylvania Packet on October 4. This publication served as a counter to the Federalist Papers that were written during the ratification fight.
Foremost among Mason's objections was that "there is no Declaration of Rights, and the laws of the general government being paramount to the laws and constitution of the several states, the Declaration of Rights in the separate states are no security." There were several other objections raised as well, but it was the lack of a bill of rights that was seized as a rallying point for the AntiFederalists.
Nine of the 13 states were needed for ratification, and the fight was a heated one in many states. One of the casualties was the friendship of Mason and Washington, as the latter bitterly referred to Mason as his "quondam friend." When the Virginia ratification convention began in June 1788, the AntiFederalist contingent was led by Mason and Patrick Henry. Among the supporters of the Constitution in the Virginia delegation were such luminaries as Madison, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, and John Marshall, as well as Washington and Jefferson, who did not attend but were known supporters. After much emotional debate, Virginia ratified the Constitution by an 89-79 vote, four days after New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify.
After this defeat, Mason retired to Gunston Hall for the final time. He turned down a seat in the U.S. Senate, preferring as usual to offer advice from home. James Madison introduced a bill of rights that was essentially based on Mason's to the first session of Congress. Mason commented that "I have received much satisfaction from amendments to the federal Constitution that have lately passed . . . with two or three further amendments . . . I could cheerfully put my hand and heart to the new government."
Mason continued to offer advice to any who would stop by for it. Thomas Jefferson complimented him by saying, "whenever I pass your road I shall do myself the honor of turning into it." Jefferson visited Mason in late September of 1792, and found the Sage of Gunston Hall reconciled with himself on every issue except the slavery compromise. A week later, Mason died peacefully-to the end a man who hated politics but loved liberty.